I used to so frequently parallel process and multitask that I actually didn’t know how to sit still or to do just one thing at a time.  I played Tetris during conference calls, needlepointed while watching a movie on demand, tapped out work emails while at the park with my children.  It wasn’t a deliberate behavior as much as it was my instinct.  I think I just kept moving, all the time, because that’s all I had ever done.  I was always in a rush to get to the next stop on the map.  Until I vaulted over the edge of that map, and realized I needed to start navigating by the stars.

That’s approximately when I started slowing down.

I’m sure it’s not coincidence that I now find many kinds of multitasking unbearably difficult.  This is most of all true when people talk to me while I’m engaged in something else, whether that is writing, reading, or listening to someone else.  It literally frays me to have my attention split like that.  I truly cannot stand it, and my poor children, who are frequently on the receiving end of a finger held up to say just one minute, can attest to this.

I sometimes feel like one of those many-armed Indian goddesses, and I need to sit down, take a breath, and remind myself: first things first.  One thing at a time.  Certainly part of this is a conscious effort I started making several years ago to be here now.  After all, my real life has already begun and I do not want to miss a moment of it.

But this feels like more than just my deliberate effort to be conscious of my experience.  When I’m interrupted when trying to write something, or when I try to do too many things at once, I sometimes feel like I’m going to leap out of my skin.  I feel a surge of sudden, overwhelming discomfort that verges on pain.  If I’m driving and don’t know where I’m going, for example, God help the person who turns on the radio: I will yelp and demand that you turn it off.  I need quiet to do a lot of things these days: not just navigate but read, write, think.

I still check my phone more than I should.  And I still sometimes play some quiet Tetris while listening to a call.  But on the whole my distracted, two-things-a-time behavior has gone way down.  And my irritation at being interrupted when I’m engaged in something has gone way up.  When I actually think about it, the change in how I inhabit the world is seismic.

Is this a symptom of old age and diminishing mental powers?  Or is it my slow turning towards genuine engagement in my own experience?  I can’t tell if it’s ironic or absolutely logical that this decreasing ability to parallel process coincides with my being busier than I have ever been.  It’s inconvenient timing, for sure, but perhaps it makes total sense.  I don’t know that there’s insight in the recognition that multi-tasking takes away from our ability to focus, but I do know that my own life, my own mind and heart, are giving me very real messages that I must more often do just one thing at a time.  I’ve tasted what life is like when I’m paying attention, and I am no longer willing to live any other way.

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  1. Missy K
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    This is so interesting. I have had a similar experience. I watched a PBS Frontline documentary a few years ago called Digital Nation. (I think that was the title.) It was focused on college students, who even then were confident that they could Facebook, text, and listen to a class lecture all at once and completely effectively. Scientific tests proved otherwise. When we multitask, generally speaking, everything we do suffers.

    I have noticed this in so many places, but the one that amuses me the most is in the kitchen. If I am only making something very familiar, or chopping vegetables, or washing dishes, I can have a conversation or listen to a podcast. If I am making a new recipe or precisely measuring for baking, forget it!

    I am choosing to take this very real experience as a message to be more fully present in each moment, rather than trying to overfill each moment.

    admin Reply:

    That example from the kitchen makes me smile, because it is so familiar!!

  2. carrie
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

    so interesting and I found myself in your body of work to the point that i had to look away and come back to the next thought. My older child finds me frustrating–my need for quiet or as he sees it my to want to do two things at once. I view it as I no longer can. I honestly find myself overstimulated and returning to my breath –wanting to be in the moment I am in rather than vaulting to the next. Yoga has taken me to this point and I guard it, afraid of regressing.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, yes – overstimulated is such a good word for what I’m trying to describe. That’s precisely it. I’m so frequently overwhelmed by all the stimulation in the world, and I just shut down.

  3. Posted March 25, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    I can’t even begin to tell you how much I relate to this post. I also flew off the map, but it took me a little while longer (years, in fact) to actually slow down.

    I used to listen to music while doing complex financial models in Excel; now I can’t even listen to music if I’m trying to think about something real, let alone WRITE.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, totally, me too – I need silence to even begin to hear my own thoughts!

  4. Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    I am guilty of this. I’m impressed that you’ve been able to cut down. I wish I could do that. It is so rare that I do ONE thing at a time. When I do, I find myself worrying about what I’m not doing. Yuck.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I relate to that. It’s not really something I’ve chosen, so much as my body literally being UNABLE to do so!

  5. Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I watched the same Frontline documentary. At the time I was helping to teach a class at a university, my first exposure to college students in a long time, and I was so struck by how their college experiences were so different than mine, simply because of technology. The data on this is clear: our minds work better when we focus on one task at a time. We are simply not built to multi-task when we’re trying to do something that matters. But of course, even though I know this rationally, this doesn’t prevent me from trying to do otherwise in my everyday life.

    admin Reply:

    I need to find that documentary!!

  6. Posted March 25, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    As someone who is a self confessed hermit that spends a lot of time at home on her own in silence with just the animals I get the whole quiet thing. The radio part made me laugh too because I can so relate. I can’t drive, try to follow directions and listen to music, its one thing too many.

    admin Reply:

    One hermit to another: I get it!

  7. Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Great observation, and very familiar. I used to read with the TV on, or even read with music going and the TV on with the sound down. No more. Talking heads are particularly jarring to me these days.

    I vote that it’s a turn toward ‘genuine engagement with our own experience.’ Love that. Very wise. Thanks for sharing.

    admin Reply:

    I like your vote. I hope you’re right. I find talking heads infuriating, to the point that I simply can’t deal with them.

  8. Posted March 25, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I can so relate to this. My kids find me a bit frustrating when I take an extra few seconds to answer them. But I have to turn off one channel of thought before opening another. I prefer to think of it as an increased ability to maintain focus.

    admin Reply:

    I think that’s a good way to think about it!

  9. Posted March 25, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I was raised by a multi-tasking mother who believed it was a sin if your hands were idle! Fast forward much more than 50 years later… I still feel guilty if I sit down to do absolutely nothing!

    admin Reply:

    Oh, to be clear: I have a terrible, awful time doing nothing. In fact I can’t do it. A few years ago I was working with a coach and that was my homework one week: do nothing for five minutes a day. And I just couldn’t do it!

  10. Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Ironically, I made reading this while eating a sandwich, but had to put the sandwich down to type…which is when I noticed that I had eaten half the sandwich and was no aware of it!

    I very much relate to what you’re saying here, Lindsey. The more I try to do at once, the unhappier I seem to be. Although I am an extrovert I have a really low tolerance for noise. I write in silence. My house is sort of tomb-like, to be honest. TVs blaring drive me up a wall. I have fought the urge to buy a smartphone because I know I would be sucked down a wormhole that I’d never get out of — which says a great deal about my utter lack of control when it comes to such things.

    Great thoughts!

    admin Reply:

    I love silence, too. Matt sometimes teases me for driving – even for hours at a time, alone – in silence. But I do.

  11. Posted March 25, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m right there with you, although I’m not sure I’ve ever been very good at multi-tasking. (My husband, for instance, has known for a long time that I can only really pay attention to one thing at a time.) In fact, being forced to multi-task remains one of the biggest challenges of motherhood for me and is one of the things that I (probably foolishly) comfort myself will get easier as my kids get older: not that there will be any fewer tasks to do, but that, maybe, they can understand that I am miserable when it comes to trying to do many things at once.

    admin Reply:

    Yes, sometimes my kids definitely understand now, that I have to work, or whatever it is. But not always! 🙂

  12. Margaret
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    Oh my gosh, do I relate to this post 1000%!! I especially love the line “God help the person who turns on the radio: I will yelp and demand that you turn it off.”. OK – but I might scream. My husband and children, and they DO still love me, would wholeheartedly agree that this is so ME. I have never been a great multitasker, but it has definitely grown worse as I have grown older, busier, more responsible for more people, animals, things, “stuff” – on the job, at home, for others, for myself…it can all be so daunting and I too need quiet and order to think and to list and to prioritize…By the way – this hugely affects me in the kitchen. Thank goodness, my husband is the chief cook in our family (and it all comes very naturally and easily to him), but I make meals as well, and the whole coordination of the different parts of the meal along with the “clean-as-you-go” effort all has me quite exhausted by the time the plates get to the table. You have mentioned your ease and comfort in the kitchen – which is full of multitasking. So you are many steps ahead of me!! : ) I try to take your advice to “be here now” each and every day. Each day I fail many times, but I keep trying, and will continue to…It seems just when I am doing great with it – I need to hide all phones, computers, t.v.’s, ipads, etc. from the rest of my family – so that we can all be here now together, LIVING it, in our combined space, instead of our separate worlds… Thank you as always for your beautiful, thought-provoking, relatable post!!

    admin Reply:

    I don’t think I’m any expert in the kitchen, I assure you – and I definitely do so in silence! xo

  13. Posted March 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m experiencing the same growing pains…it’s a conscious process to stay in the moment.

    admin Reply:

    I agree. xox

  14. Posted March 25, 2013 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    The aging question: I’ve had the same one. In the past few years, my tolerance for stimulation of all kinds seems to have diminished to almost nothing. When a child turns on a TV sitcom, I have a physical reaction to the noise of it. But I’ve wondered if it’s just that in becoming aware of my need for quiet and focus, and in increasing the amounts of it in my life, I’ve simply become more aware of how much it bothers me not to have it. I wonder if it always bothered me this much, but I just didn’t know–because I was so distracted by all the noise (literal and metaphorical).

    admin Reply:

    I agree – I am certainly more bothered by it than anyone else I know. But it’s just how it is, and more and more, I don’t have a choice but to concede to my own needs!

  15. Posted March 26, 2013 at 5:11 am | Permalink

    I can relate! I think the heightened sensitivity to too much going on around us is our body telling us that we are on the right path with ‘being in the present’. It’s just a gentle reminder – and, boy, do I still seem to need a few of those gentle reminders.

    I also ask myself what I am so scared of if I slow down and do one task at a time… I’m still mulling that one over.

    admin Reply:

    I think you are right, that this is our body’s way of gently (or not) guiding us back to the path. xo

  16. Posted March 28, 2013 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Lindsey, as I recoup from this brain injury, I am sooo aware of single focused “meditation” — in everyday life. I literally CAN’T multitask. It has been actually very healing and soothing for my brain…and life! I’m there with ya girl! Love, Lisa

  17. Posted April 10, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    So often, I feel like we are on parallel paths. I used to thrive on doing five things at once. Now, it drives me batty. I love this line of yours: “I’ve tasted what life is like when I’m paying attention, and I am no longer willing to live any other way.” Yes!