That Time When 'Multitasking' Short Circuited My Brain (and how I fixed it)
Sometime last year in the midst of starting my own business; managing both my kids schedules; staying in touch with friends; maintaining an exercise regimen; nurturing my relationship with my aging parents; trying to keep my marriage “exciting;” overseeing a renovation; managing a rental property; attempting to stay current on social media; current affairs and the hottest new music my brain began to slowly melt-down. I started to notice a trend of missed appointments and confused schedules (we showed up for a birthday party on the wrong day - oops!). I’d walk over to my desk and stare blankly, having no recollection of what sent me over there in the first place. My husband would tell me a story or mention a name and I’d have absolutely no idea who he was talking about. I started to have the nagging feeling that I was always forgetting something I was supposed to be doing and all of this lead to my becoming more short tempered with my kids and generally cranky.
Then one day, while attempting to write an article (while simultaneously texting with my mother-in-law and scheduling an appointment with my handyman) I stumbled upon a quote from the Roman philosopher Seneca* that really resonated with me, “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” I sat and thought about this idea “to be everywhere is to be nowhere.” By spreading myself so thin and trying to do so many tasks at the same time I was not only completely disconnected from all of them, but also, more importantly, from myself. This simple quote was the perfect encapsulation of my current mental state and, let’s be honest, the current state of all smartphone toting, app enabled, constantly connected 21st century humans.
Distraction may seem like a small price to pay for the convenience and efficiency that the connected life offers us, but in fact, distraction is only the visible symptom of something much more consequential going on inside our minds. As it turns out, multitasking is a misnomer. According to MIT professor Sherry Turkle, our brains are simply not wired to handle multiple tasks at once while giving each task 100% of our attention. What we do instead is more like task switching. Our brains go back and forth from one task to another with no one task receiving our full attention. It seems task switching plays a psychological trick on us. It creates the illusion of efficiency, while in fact we’re actually get multiple tasks done less well.
But to me, the deeper and more disturbing consequence of this new norm is that much of our day to day interaction has become simplified to the point where it is superficial. The more time we spend switching rapidly from task to task, from website to website, from person to person, the less deep we dive into any one of these. And for most people, true satisfaction comes from deep connection, deep understanding and deep emotion. As and adult who grew up in a non digital world, I know what it means to have the option of a slower more focused life. But what about my kids? Do I want them living a life of constant task switching and shallow connection that robs them of richer experience? How can we respect and honor their new digital world, while still teaching them what it means to take your time, to savor a moment, to be present?
In my own life, I decided to take some time to research, to talk with others and to quietly listen to my intuition. I began to see a new way to navigate our constantly connected world and found a path toward balance. The answer for me came in the form of Mindful Awareness.
Mindful Awareness, a concept that comes from meditation, simply means you are fully present and aware of whatever it is you are doing in that moment. You may be brushing your hair, breathing, taking a walk, eating, listening to the sound of the waves or playing with your children. Whatever the activity, you make a point of engaging your full awareness (smell, taste, sight, sound, touch) in that moment. The time we spend on our screens is useful and fun, but ultimately functions more as an “out of body” experience. What we need then, is the balance that comes from being back in our bodies and in the present moment. It is no coincidence that yoga and meditation have become so popular in the past decade. Our bodies and minds crave balance, quiet and rest from our hectic and constantly connected worlds and so do our children, even if they don’t say so. Because the work I do is mostly with children, I want to share with you the simple ways in which I believe we can begin to teach our kids how to focus and be present in today’s digital world.
You may be thinking well this is great Julia, but my kid is NEVER going to sit down to meditate or do yoga. I hear you, my kids won’t either and they don’t have to. There are other ways to slow them down and engage them in mindfulness. Here are just a few that I like:
Any kind of art making (clay, painting, drawing, coloring pages)
Outdoor play (hiking, gardening, beach, snow - anything tactile)
Sewing and knitting (very meditative)
Fuse beads (very meditative)
Simon says or follow the leader (great for practicing focus and body awareness)
A really good cuddling session (touch, connection and quiet feed the soul and calm the mind)
Face to face conversation (practicing mindful listening and empathy)
When doing any of these activities with your kids, take a moment to casually mention how good it feels. This will help foster a connection for your kids between the mindful activity and feelings of wellbeing. For example, “gosh I love doing fuse beads, it’s such a great way for me to relax when I’m feeling stressed,” or “yum, I love the feeling of my fingers in the dirt. What does it feel like to you?” As your children get older you can introduce the concept of watching the breath and mindful breathing. Slowly and organically your kids will build a reserve of resources that will serve them in the future when they are overwhelmed or distressed.
Taking time to cultivate Mindful Awareness is something everyone can do. For me it started with become conscious of the effect my constant connectivity was having on my mind body and soul. The next step was a committed decision to try my best to slow it down and model that behavior for my kids. I can tell you in all honestly that I didn’t have to change that radically to feel a difference. Slowing down, feeling my body and remembering to connect with the present gives me room to breath, and put my best foot forward in every interaction I have. Give it a try, there’s nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
PS - If you are interested in learning more about meditation for both adults and children check out the resources page of my website.
* No - I do not go around reading Roman philosophy in my free time - it was a happy Google accident.