Thursday, August 5, 2010

Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

As parents we all have to do it. Multitasking is necessary for survival. We have to learn how to pay attention to what the toddler is grabbing while chopping vegetables for dinner and answering the ringing phone.

We multitask on a micro scale as we tackle our basic chores and on a macro scale as we negotiate our multiple roles and responsibilities. Multitasking is a necessary and functional skill. We often measure our competency as parents at least partially on how well we can multitask. So, what's the problem?

I am a multitasking junkie. In many ways this enabled me to balance graduate school and marriage and it now helps me take care of household chores while watching and playing with the boys. But, sometimes my multitasking gets a little out of hand. Sometimes I feel like I'm trying to do three things at once and I still have no clue what the rules are for the game my son is explaining to me.

I think I'm being more efficient by handling multiple tasks nearly simultaneously. But, research indicates that we're actually less efficient when we multitask. Apparently, spreading little bits of our attention out onto different tasks or constantly switching back and forth leads to mistakes and misunderstandings.

When possible, we need to slow down and focus on a single task. Our work, whether it's washing dishes or writing memos, is more accurate and more efficiently done if we dedicate our full attention to each task independently. Being present in the moment and giving our full attention to what's in front of us is good for productivity and for mental health.

This is the basis of mindfulness, which is a term that is being thrown around everywhere these days. Mindfulness is being focused on the present moment with nonjudgmental clarity. Being mindful means being aware of where our attention is and choosing to focus it on one thing.

The research bears out - mindfulness is good for the mind. Practicing mindful thinking and meditation is associated with stress reduction, improved attention, and enhanced mood. Basically, mindfulness is good self-care. Learning to be mindful allows us to really hear about our partner's day, to fully attend to our children's stories, and to completely relax when we finally have downtime.

As mothers, can we ever really eliminate multitasking? And should we, if we actually could? Probably not. It is necessary for us to juggle our multiple activities and multiple roles, sometimes at the same time. But, it is also important for us to learn to slow down and fully attend to who or what is right in front of us. It's good for our relationships and for our mental health.

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