Is multi-tasking an over-rated virtue?

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Buddha, reminding us that mindfulness IS.

Multi-tasking: The ability to successfully do more than one thing at a time. Interestingly enough, a quick Internet search for its definition reveals that the term is directly linked to computing. Check this out, where:

Multi-tasking is a situation in which a computer or person does more than one thing at the same time.

This past week, we had an official holiday on Tuesday.

I took this opportunity to do a bit of spring-cleaning, an exercise that I found to be physically as well as psychically liberating. Indeed, Zen moments can be found while clearing out a closet, going through the stack of ‘essential’ papers whose importance seem to wane over time, washing the dishes and tossing left-overs from the refrigerator.

However, at one point in this therapeutic process mindfulness returned and I caught myself trying to drink the smoothie that I’d made several minutes earlier, sorting out a drawer that held a kaleidoscope of odds and ends – paper clips, shirt buttons, business calling cards, pens, pencils, spools of thread and ah, my red lipstick that I thought I’d lost AND surfing the internet for some information. Oh, one more thing: the anti-aging facial mask that should have been washed off after 15 minutes had now been on for so long that my face had tightened to such an extent, I felt like a mummified statue!

In this instant of my own neurosis, I was bent over in laughter. How many things did I truly think I could manage to do successfully with my energy scattered all over the place like this?!

For at least a decade, one’s ability to do several things at once, under the term ‘multi-tasking’ has been a staple on job advertisements, especially for those in administrative and managerial type occupations.

I’d imagine that for yogis and yoginis especially, this unique art must be quite conflicting to the teachings of yoga that invite us to breathe in and center ourselves and breathe out everything that keeps us from focusing so that we can bring ourselves into the present moment; with emphasis on the singularity of now.  I wonder whether it is this ‘ability’ that we pride ourselves in – multi-tasking – that makes the art of meditation so challenging for many of us?

It is the nature of the mind to wander – this is clear. However in our modern world, we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that efficiency is measured by one’s ability to engage the mind, body and spirit into a virtually schizoid state in a desperate attempt to be efficient multi-taskers!

In the long run, multi-tasking can and does put the human being under a tremendous amount of unnecessary stress, without possibly even realizing it.

Here are a few classic examples that I’ve witnessed in myself this week: on three different occasions with kitchen mittens on all prepared to remove a casserole from the oven, I’ve found myself standing in front of the refrigerator wandering “what did I come here for?”

Leaving my office to walk to someone else’s and halfway down the corridor, having no recollection of where I’m headed. When I re-traced my steps recollection returned, otherwise I may have begun to seriously question my sanity. Yesterday’s latest episode – reaching for the telephone to call someone and then as my hand connected with the receiver, recognizing that somewhere in that mili-second of time, my brain had disconnected and forgotten who I’d intended to call.

Concerned that I may be losing it or having an early onset of Alzheimer’s, I timidly shared with a colleague my concern at the fact that lately, I seem to be re-naming folk:  Cynthia to Christine, Marie Clare to Marie Louse, David Bowden to Richard Dowden are just a few examples. In turn, he re-counted and shared with me his typical day:

He’s drafting e-mail and the phone rings. In the midst of this, his assistant comes in with an important document for him to sign.  Responsibly he must read what he affixes his signature to so he begins that process. Suddenly, someone sticks his/her head into his door asking, “you have a few minutes?” Priding himself on being a manager with an open door policy, “sure” he responds.  Ten minutes later, he’s left with a pile of unfinished business – he needs to return the call of the person he had to cut off in order to sign the document for which he’s only scanned the information and can barely remember it, in fact, he’s confused it with the e-mail he was drafting and whoever stuck their head in the door has gone away with clarity while he’s left in a muddle of confusion, nowhere further in fact perhaps having even fallen behind than he was 20 minutes prior.

Multi-tasking is beginning to look pretty over-rated to me. I’m certain that the growing appeal of yoga for many of us is the fact that it potentially serves as the one moment in our day where we’re not literally racing from pillar to post. Here we are, on the mat, combining movement with breath, one asana or yoga posture, at a time. For those who are able to let go and fully experience the gift of our temporary periods of death in Savasana or corpse pose, we grant ourselves permission to pause so that we’re able to re-collect our entire selves and re-emerge into the frenetic world indeed feeling more ‘together’ than perhaps at the start of our practice.

Conclusion:  In those moments where multi-tasking becomes consuming and over-whelming, roll out our mats – visually or literally – and lay Savasana.  Give ourselves the permission to slow ourselves down so that we’re able to bring attention and focus to our activities.  Truly, very little in our lives is so pressing that we cannot allow ourselves a few moments of slow, deep, energizing, re-vitalizing breaths.    After all, we are living human beings and not non-living computers!

I’m off to make my smoothie before the phone starts ringing.

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About Nadine McNeil

Yogini. Humanitarian. Spirited. Compassionate. Storyteller. All of these words conjure up aspects that make Nadine McNeil the person she aspires to be: an evolutionary catalyst committed to global transformation. Now fully devoted to expanding the reach of yoga through what she refers to as the “democratization of yoga,” she designs and delivers workshops to a wide cross-section of communities who ordinarily may not be exposed to nor reap its benefits.To join her mailing list and to learn more about her work and receive special offers, please click here.


12 Responses to “Is multi-tasking an over-rated virtue?”

  1. Ben_Ralston says:

    Yes, I like your thinking Nadine.
    I believe that our attention (our enegy, our LOVE) is like a flashlight – you can spread the light diffusely around and it's weak, or you can tighten the beam into a coherent, concentrated, focused light. When you do it the second way, you get much more done, effortlessly, and with great joy. This is what is known as "skill in action" (amongst other things). It's also a result of being 'clear' in yourself (free of blockages), and having a coherence between head, heart, and gut (our 3 main centers of awareness).

    I'm useless at multi tasking though – so maybe I'm just heavily biased and trying to justify my own inadequacy!!

    Love, Ben

    • Nadine says:

      Count your blessings — about being 'useless!' I've found that I'm far more 'efficient' when I am fully present in the moment of doing one thing FULLY at a time. Thanks for your comment on FB ej page about this piece because I'm sure that it contributed to it gaining so much readership and feedback. Blessed Love, Nadine!

  2. I can definitely relate to this, Nadine! Used to pride myself on my amazing multi-tasking abilities but am working on focus, balance and mindfulness. Also, asking myself the question–do I really need to do THIS today/right now? It's a difficult habit to master (I should know, I haven't mastered it yet), but worth the effort. Now I can add your thoughts to my arsenal 🙂

  3. China Royale says:

    Totally over-rated Nadine. Yes, indeed I remember when this term came into being. Resumes/Cv's, job requirements "must be able to multi-task!". Corporate jargon meaning "you gotta do more to earn the same pay cheque." Had a lot of us fooled!!!
    Corporations put a label on it because when were we never multi-tasking? And oh boy, did we ever pride ourselves (ego, ego, ego) on being able to do a 100 things at a time and giving 200 per cent to each task. Multi-tasking is multi-tiring. Right now I am writing this email and digesting lunch how is that for multi tasking!!! And after this I might just do some multi-resting. Ahh Savasana…to lie there zero thinking of multi-nothing.

  4. Tricia Ptak says:

    While on retreat in India, Shiva Rae asked us what we needed to attend to, and strenghten. I thought about and the thought popped into my mind that I want to full immerse myself in every task, no matter how mundane. My years of multitasking have left me weary and diffuse. I am so much more present and peaceful, the next task can wait. Tthanks for the great post!

  5. sasi says:

    as the definition suggests, let's leave that to the computers.

  6. Yesterday I was patiently waiting for an e-mail response to an important question I had sent out five days ago. I decided to remind the person I needed a response. I went to send her a copy of my original e-mail and found it in my "drafts" file! I had never sent it. I apparently was interrupted by something else and forgot all about it.

    This is good advice, Nadine, although I will tell you that in some jobs, like running a business, expert multi-tasking is still a necessity. But even there, the technique of Yogic concentration is one of the ways you get better at, ironically.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  7. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  8. yogiclarebear says:

    LIKE!!! Oh man, the standing in front of the fridge thing. EVERY FREAKING DAY LOL!

  9. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

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