We know, as a society, that humans are bad at multi-tasking. Science has tested this over and over and over and has never gotten any other result than “yup, we’re bad at multi-tasking.” And yet, we keep doing it. We keep demanding in job descriptions that people be good at it, we keep setting up situations that require it, and we keep being surprised when we’re not very effective and we’re super stressed out. One of the definitions of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Maybe it’s time to stop being insane about this thing.
Personally, I find multi-tasking extremely stressful. The thing is, I often think I’m bored if I’m not trying to do several things at once. For example, I only rarely eat dinner without also poking the Internet. This isn’t actually satisfying on either front; I put a good amount of effort into making good food, so why am I only half paying attention to it? If what I’m doing online is so interesting, why am I half-assing it? And if it’s *not* that interesting, why am I doing it?
I joke that one of my hobbies is picking up new hobbies, and I also joke that I never have free time. One of these things is true, one of them is only sort of true. I truly love learning new things, I love finding out how something is done, and that I can do it, which is why I pick up new hobbies all the time. But I have significantly less time to do that in because I spend a lot of time poking the Internet; checking Twitter and other social media sites, watching cat videos, or falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. If I’m bored, my default is to do those things, and probably also shop around Etsy and Ebay, even though I have no intention of buying anything. It’s habit. But it’s deeply unsatisfying. I sit down and then when I look up, I’ve lost several hours. The result is that I sleep less than I’d like, and I feel like I have no free time, while simultaneously feeling like I’ve done nothing all day.
The thing is, just sitting with my thoughts is… unsettling. It’s very rare to see someone be alone with themselves, and we often feel pity for those people. That person sitting alone at the restaurant or coffee shop probably has their computer with them; they’re not really alone. Try going into a coffee shop sometime and sitting down with no electronic device and no company. For me, at any rate, it feels extremely uncomfortable. I feel like everyone is judging me for being all alone, and if I really think about it, I use my phone or laptop to hide from that feeling; “see? I’m not really alone, I’m busy!” But busy doing what, exactly?
I have spoken before about spinning yarn; it’s a form of meditation for me, as well as just something to do with my hands while I talk or consume hands-free media. The thing is, I have to make myself spin with no other distractions going on. It is always uncomfortable. I always feel my thoughts trying to run off and squirrel around. I want to distract myself, I feel bored. But distract myself from *what*? I’m actually doing something I enjoy. And yes, I do spin better when I’m not thinking about what I’m doing. So why not focus my energy into experiencing it, rather than thinking about it, or into some other distraction? My thoughts behave like a small child on a long car ride; the longer I ask them to sit still, the stiffer and more artificial it gets until finally the squirming starts. My partner suggested meditation, and trying to still my mind; it went terribly. I kept trying, and it kept going terribly. But moving meditation is a thing. Mindful meditation is also a thing. So I have learned to focus instead on the feel of what I’m doing. To feel it as fully as possible, so to speak. To feel my arms lifting, my fingers drawing the wool, the way my legs need to be to hold the spindle support. And when I start to think *about* what I’m doing “oof, my face must look silly right now” or “I bet I could make a better support if…”, I bring my focus back to the feel of what I’m doing.
It’s much like swimming in rough water. When you first get in, it feels like you’re being buffeted and dragged to and fro, and isn’t this obviously a terrible idea? But if you go deeper, let yourself sink below the surface, the water is calm, and easy, and beautiful. It feels the same when I do a single thing. I feel at first like I’m being pulled in a dozen directions, but if I can just let myself sink into what I’m doing, there is a sense of peace and Grace. All of which is to say that I think giving up multi-tasking is a good thing. I’m intentionally not multi-tasking this month. I made breakfast this morning, and then sat at the table, alone, and ate it, paying attention to the texture and flavor and the motion of my hands as I used my fork. I had sort of peripherally known that I sit with my left hand in my lap when I eat, but today I was really aware of it. I was also aware that I sit bent forward at the waist, with my head almost over my knees. Thinking about it, I know this is because of an injury a few years ago; my tailbone was severely bruised and hurt if I sat up straight and put pressure on it for almost a year. I hadn’t realized that I’m still keeping my weight off of it, though, and I suspect that’s contributing to the chronic back and shoulder problems I experience.
So my goal in the next 30 days is two-fold; to only use my computer when it’s what I actually want or need to be doing (work, for example, or looking up a recipe) and to only do one thing at a time. I have to admit that I’m cheating a little bit already; I have music playing today while I type this. Though if I didn’t, one or both of my roommates would have some playing, and this way I can choose something minimally distracting.
I’ll keep you posted on how I feel about all of this. Cheers!