Why Multi-Tasking Is Making You Unhappy
We're all so busy these days. We work (while eating), we exercise (while watching the news), we try to eat well (which requires planning, shopping, cooking, and cleaning), we socialize in person and via a variety of devices (phone, email, text, Skype), and somewhere jammed in there we try to find time to meditate.
Even while driving in the car, which in days-gone-by was a time to absorb the beauty of the countryside or take in the sights of the town, we now talk on the phone, listen to music, or text at traffic lights (hopefully not, but I know it's true).
In our race to fit it all in, it seems that we've forgotten how to focus on one task, one activity, one experience at a time. Just as silence is becoming a lost art, tragically absorbed into the soundtrack and audible rhythm of a world that's becoming increasingly louder, focusing our attention on one activity is also falling by the wayside of our lives.
Why do we feel the need to fill the space?
Part of it is that we fear what will simmer up in the empty spaces. And part of it is habit and convenience. If you turn your cell phone off while driving, you'll be a lot less likely to reach for it to make a phone call or even plug it in for music (and a lot safer, of course). If you leave behind your device when you go for a walk, you'll be amazed at what filters up through the silence. Like any habit, it's hard to break it at first, but very quickly your body will remember what it used to be like before smartphones filled our lives.
As my grandpa once said when I was driving with him in my early twenties, "I don't understand kids these days. They always have to fill the car with noise. What's wrong with just cracking the window and driving in silence?" And that was 20 years ago! I can only imagine what he would think today.
When my first son was born over nine years ago, I relished the time when he would nap on our daily walks so I could catch up with friends via cell phone. Now when I walk with my sons, I cherish the time to connect with them, sometimes walking in silence, sometimes pointing out a bunny on the grass or the chickens in our neighbors' yard or a red-tailed hawk flying overhead. When I do talk to a friend while walking with them, I feel empty, like I've missed a precious moment by dividing my attention.
Part of it is that my kids are older now and it no longer feels right to talk to someone else when I could be talking to them. But part of it is that I've noticed a shift in me recently where I crave to absorb the moment with full attention. If I'm driving, I want to notice without diversion what surrounds me: the golden, late autumn light on the hills; the hundreds of geese congregating on the pond; the gentle, black cows. If I'm on the phone, I may peripherally see the beauty, but it wouldn't seep into the deeper layers of soul.
If I'm washing dishes, I want to notice the experience of washing dishes: the smell of the lavender soap; the sight of the sudsy lather; the warm water on my hands. If I'm on the phone while washing dishes, not only would I miss the experience of being present to the poetry but I'd miss the moment my four year-old walks up to me and says, "Mommy, look at my microscope dressed up like Darth Vader for Halloween!"
I don't want to miss a single moment. This life passes by quickly, and while not every moment is beautiful from bliss, every moment is beautiful because it's a moment that I'm here. Multi-tasking, while sometime essential, is more often a choice, a choice that dilutes the moment and causes us to miss out on the windows of beauty that spread out before us like country road. Mindfulness isn't just something you practice once a day for half an hour; it's a way of life. It's about being mindful of each moment:
Focus on driving when you're driving.
Focus on eating when you're eating.
Focus on your friend when you're talking with a friend.
One task at a time.
It's mindfulness in action. It's how we practice in daily life how to be ... here ... now.