THE BLOG
02/16/2016 10:54 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Magic of Monotasking

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"To do two things at once is to do neither."
-- Publilius Syrus

I can juggle. Sort of. I can keep three tangerines in the air (I just timed myself) for 22 seconds. I was about 13 when I became obsessed with the idea of learning how to juggle. I remember practicing day in and day out, bruising many a fruit as I taught myself how to keep them all in the air. I was over the moon happy when I was finally able to do it. I yelled for my parents to come into the room quickly to witness my superhero magic. I thought, what could be more amazing than this?

Fast forward to the present and I'm still juggling. Chances are, so are you. I bet you can eat breakfast, check your email, respond to a text, watch the news and talk to your significant other all at the same time. You might even be proud of your juggling skills. I know I was. Until my head exploded. Okay, maybe that's a tad dramatic but my head was beginning to feel very full. Too full. Too full to function. As soon as I'd sit myself down in front of my laptop I could feel myself getting vacuum sucked into the maddening matrix of TMI (too much information) giving me the feeling of being in a constant state of overwhelm.

According to recent studies, there's a reason why my mind aches from all of this simultaneous doing. Studies now show that multitasking is bad for us. David Meyer at the University of Michigan says that:

"Multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory."

Also, we may think we're master multitaskers, but 98 percent of us really aren't. Apparently, the brain requires a certain amount of bandwidth to move from one thing to the next and back again, affecting our performance on both tasks. This video by Sanjay Gupta, M.D. does a great job summing it up.

Sometimes we may have good intentions. I might intend to just check my email but in that email there's a link! And that link may take me to a page that may or may not be of any interest to me but I'll never know if I don't click on it! That's where FOMO (fear of missing out) comes into play. If I don't binge watch that new show on Netflix and everyone tweets about it, I'll be missing out! Between the combined TMI and FOMO I'm left with CUE (complete utter exhaustion.)

What to do? I took a hint from my mindfulness studies. In mindfulness we often take a few minutes in our day for informal practice. Informal practice can be any activity that you often do: brush your teeth, do the dishes, feed the dog, eat lunch. But you do it from a mindful perspective.
When you do the dishes, you really do the dishes. You feel the temperature of the water on your skin, the shape of the dish. You work slowly, deliberately, paying attention to all the senses. When your mind wanders, you notice it, then you calmly and without judgement bring your attention back to the task at hand. This experiment felt tedious when I first started doing it. Okay, I get it, the water is warm, the dish is smooth, this is taking forever. I need to go do stuff! But after a while I started to feel like I was getting into the zone. This warm water feels nice on my cold hands. I never noticed what a pretty shade of yellow this plate is. I began to feel less rushed when I focused on the one thing I was doing. Bonus: The dishes have never been cleaner.

I very much enjoy texting, social media and Netflix. The concept of "one thing at a time" is crazy hard for me but I'm attempting to have an awareness around it. I'm trying not to operate on automatic pilot, grabbing my smartphone just because I have an urge. I'm learning that not everything is so damn crucial.

Because the thing is, as tough as it seems at first, when I do manage to monotask, the magic of it is an incredible calmness that washes over me. You know how when you're doing the laundry and the dryer has been going for awhile and then it shuts off and you think to yourself, "Wow, that dryer was loud." We sometimes get desensitized to the loudness in our own minds. We don't notice how loud it is until we turn it off (or at least down) for a moment. I enjoy the feeling I get from this peaceful pacing so I'm inspired to aspire for monotasking maven status. Besides, when I'm doing the dishes, it's not like i'm putting my life on hold to do them. Doing them is a part of my life. It's all a part of my life.

If you want to give it a whirl, here's a breakdown of what seems to be working for me so far in my quest for mastering monotasking.

1. When I'm relaxing with my husband, watching a movie, I now keep my phone in the other room. No Googling, IMDbing or tweeting. Just movie watching.

2. I set blocks of time for things I need to do, in order of importance and I stay on point. My iPhone timer is my BFF. I also like the Task and Cal app.

3. I check email in the morning but I don't respond to anything in that moment that doesn't need an immediate response. I save them in a labeled folder, "to answer."

4. I use Hootsuite to schedule tweets throughout the week (I manage three Twitter accounts) and I give myself five-minute social media blocks three times a day.

5. I eat at least one meal per week without sitting in front of the TV, the computer, listening to music or having a conversation. Bonus: I enjoy the food more, eat slower and get full faster when I practice mindful eating.

6. I take short breaks throughout the day to make tea. Take the dog out. Sit on my front stoop and do nothing. This feels like mini meditations off the cushion.

After you try taking the time to do one thing at a time, you might find that your days feel less like they're zooming by at warp speed and more like you're actually in it. You might find yourself experiencing your life, in each moment, fully, and maybe even with more calm and focus than ever before.

Also, your dishes will sparkle.

photo by Pixabay