For years, I’ve been trained to believe that the ability to multi-task is a necessary competency, especially in the workplace. After all, proving that you can simultaneously write an e-mail, immediately respond to another regarding a completely different topic, answer a phone call and edit a document shows that you can manage multiple projects seamlessly. And, more so, you can “shift gears” (more corporate jargon), which politely means, “I can stop working on whatever I’m doing to meet whatever need you have at this exact second.”
My brain is never silent. It’s constantly bouncing between song lyrics, personal reflection, what I have to do that night and what I should be focusing on at that moment. The best description I’ve ever heard is that my brain is like a train station, with a dozen trains all trying to find track space. Without someone to schedule and direct the trains, they likely will all crash in the middle. If I don’t take the time to make painstaking lists, which include very specific tasks like “Empty dishwasher. Dry dishes in rack. Wash dishes in sink,” nothing gets done.
On the other hand, I’ve successfully turned a challenge into a strength. Working in social marketing is ideal for me; it’s fast-paced and requires constant shifting of attention. I’ve come to acknowledge that many people don’t possess the mindset to keep up with a workday like mine. But when you task me with reporting numbers and creating a spreadsheet, I’ll probably end up doing 15 other things while working on it, and drag out an hour-long project to a half-day one.
The positive is that my talent for multi-tasking is essential to my career. The negative is that I am challenged when I have to singularly dedicate my focus. I read while I watch TV. I cook while I talk on the phone. And worst of all, I react as soon as I see a notification on my phone, immediately breaking my concentration.
I’ve recently decided that I need to re-learn how to do one thing at a time. Whether that one thing is reading a book, watching a movie or spending time with friends, my focus needs to be solely on that moment.
Not surprisingly, this is less than simple.
A perfect example – I just stopped writing this post because my friend called. Although I feel I haven’t lost the direction of my thoughts and it was certainly worthwhile to take the call, it’s very easy for me to abandon what I am doing. Or to simply do two (or more) things at the same time.
Due to the nature of my job, I’ve come to accept that I need to know what’s going on at all times. The reality is that this isn’t possible. I sleep. I (rarely but occasionally) am out of cell phone range. And sometimes, I just need a break from seeing everything online in real time.
While I pride myself of being on top of my work, I recognize that the world won’t explode if I don’t see an issue brewing on Facebook within the first 15 minutes that it occurs. I used to think nothing of taking my phone out to check in, almost too often. Then I took a hard look at the people I surrounded myself with, many who work in similar industries. Every dinner involved a table of people scrolling through Twitter, replying to e-mail, answering text messages and checking in on foursquare.
Two realizations: people deserve your attention. Sometimes, it feels good to “check out.”
Now, when I’m with my friends, I’m making a conscious effort to keep my phone in my purse. And if I take it out, I’ll keep it face down, as to not see the flashing notifications. Roughly once an hour, when I get up to use the restroom (or something similar), I’ll quickly scroll through to make sure everything’s under control. I’ve had moments when I’m out, that a work “crisis” has occurred. My friends, thankfully, understand the nature of my job and are polite when I have to step aside and fix something online. And when it comes to the non-work stuff, it can wait.
Many activities I engage in (reading, watching TV shows), I’ve come to see as social experiences. When I read an article, I want to know what other people think about it. When I watch a football game, I want to comment on it. But none of this needs to happen in real time. I need to focus on one thing I am doing, and if that means saying “For one hour, I am going to read this book and do nothing else,” then so be it.
I’m training myself to be a better listener, to not be thinking what I plan to reply before someone is done speaking. I hope to become less anxious by forcing myself to think about fewer things. And I look forward to remembering what life was life before everything sped up, one experience at a time.