My truth about multitasking is a story of dread and acceptance. I experience dread because I often feel a resistance to sit down and work when I know that I am going to get distracted or pulled away from what I am working on. At the same time, I try and embrace radical acceptance because even though I think I would prefer an uninterrupted workflow, I know that’s just not going to happen, so I’d be better off just going with the flow. There are parts of my day that I am able to handle without dividing my attention, and then there are others where I just can’t. I’ve been exercising mindfulness so that I can gain a better understanding of how I am and how I let small distractions turn into big ones that sometimes rule my entire day. In the end, I believe that my life wouldn’t be the same without multitasking–I don’t think I could be a student right now without it! I realize that begins to sound like I am painting with a broad brush, so let me give you some examples of how I experience multitasking day in and day out.
I used to be able to get up, get ready, and get out the front door in 45 minutes. Now, it takes me no less than 90 minutes, usually 2 hours. From the time I get up til the time I get in the car to head to Blacksburg, my morning is about multitasking. Being a student with a baby, there is a lot that goes into getting both of us ready to go in the morning. With a busy baby, it’s even more challenging. Every step of the way, I am keeping some of my brainpower in reserve to watch her and to help me think about what we have to do next to be ready to go.
On most mornings, I wake up to the sound of my daughter, Lilah, calling me from her crib across the hall. Muscle memory allows me to fly out of bed in a flourish, and I propel myself into her room to greet her good morning and begin caring for her needs, which usually includes singing a song, changing a diaper, and grabbing the bottle(s) from last night to take downstairs to the sink.
Downstairs in the kitchen, I pour myself some coffee, feed Lilah some breakfast, and begin packing my lunch. Somewhere between buckling her into the high chair and combing cheese grits out of her hair, I’ve managed to drink half a cup of coffee, made a plain peanut butter sandwich, and put it and two pieces of fruit into my lunch box.
Then the two of us are back upstairs and I, still in my pajamas and house robe, begin helping her into an outfit and fixing her hair for the day. Getting her ready usually involves reading a book or engaging in some other activity like the Put-the-Clothes-Back-in-the-Drawer-Game which happens as a result of her helping me pick out something for to wear for that day. Sometimes, I don’t get her clothes picked up and put back until it’s bedtime and we are in her room at the end of the day looking for pajamas.
It seems like there are endless distractions as she wants to play and I am trying to stay on schedule. Like I said, I usually give in to the requests for engagement–because this time with her is precious and fleeting, and I’d rather live with a little more stress if it means that I made time to spend with her despite everything I felt like I had to do at the time. And somewhere in the middle of all of this, I am sending and receiving text messages from far away family of cheerful greetings, good mornings, and sharing pictures of the little one.
After I get her ready, then it’s my turn to get dressed and ready for school. I do my best to make myself presentable–all the while I’m keeping one eye on Lilah as she toddles around the room, a trail of toys and random objects in her wake. Sometimes before I can finish putting on makeup or braiding my hair, she communicates that she is sleep, and insists on being put down for a nap. So, I stop what I’m doing and take her to her room to rock, relax, and lay her down for a few precious minutes while I finish my getting ready routine. I’ve found that to be much faster (and more peaceful) than trying to navigate around a baby that wants your undivided attention.
If I’m lucky, she will nap in the morning. When she does, I’m in high-gear trying to get everything that she and I need for the day pulled together and put into the car. I try to make us so ready for the day that all I have to do is get her up and we are ready to go. From the time I leave my house, it takes about 45 minutes to get from home to daycare, to campus, and to my office. That time isn’t totally spent driving. At daycare, it takes time to get her checked in and I always anticipate a 10 minute walk for when I get to campus each morning. During the drive, I am scarfing down a fold-over, drinking coffee, and trying to catch a little bit of the news. During my walk, I am texting with family and checking on my project’s Twitter and Instagram. It never stops. But I try to stop and notice the scenery around me and take time to appreciate the world. Judging by how fast the last decade seemed to fly by, I anticipate the one I’m in now to go by just as fast if not faster. Is multitasking stealing my time and warping my memory?
Time in the Lab
My time in the office is my most productive time of day. Here, I do everything in my power to stay on top of my classes, readings, and course work. But I find that my time in the lab is often dominated by social interaction, so even though it is my “quiet space” to work, if my office-mates are in, we sometimes work in silence, but usually there is some kind of discussion happening in our space. I am always being asked to proofread, asked questions about customs and manners here, and venting with my friends.
Others may feel differently about their lab time–they may say that they prefer it to be silent so that more work can be accomplished, but I tend to disagree. I think the social interaction is good for all of us and it is nice to have a chance to talk to your cohort. In my office, we are always talking about research, methods, upcoming assignments, and ideas. It’s great to have like-minded people to share your work space with. Without the “distractions” from my colleagues, I don’t know that I would have another opportunity quite like it to share and collaborate with other graduate students.
Besides, all of us bring headphones and we use them to help ourselves tune into our work. One girl also brings ear plugs so if she wants, she can completely tune out noisy distractions while she reads and writes. We all understand that our lab is a place where work happens, but it’s also a space for discussion as well.
Blogging/Homework in General
I think I’ve said before that I enjoy blogging. The act of getting my thoughts out of my head and molded into a composition is extremely satisfying for me. But it’s not without it’s distractions and moments of multitasking–some are good, others are bad. An example of something that I would consider “good” multitasking is when I have to hold my daughter in my lap (away from the computer so she doesn’t slap the keyboard), and feed her pieces of shredded cheddar cheese and draw on scratch paper while I either listen to podcasts or read articles and posts. It comes in spurts–every couple of minutes I am pulled away from my task to tend to my daughter’s needs or some other activity that just won’t seem to wait. But I consider this “good” because I am getting some interaction with Lilah, she knows that I am busy working but not too busy to hold her and let her play (very) near me.
An example of a “bad” distraction would be me sitting here to read and write, yet I’ve somehow my attention has been sucked into my smart phone. Earlier, I was posting about Studio In-Progress updates for the class/project I am a research assistant for. Part of this means that after completing the post, I sign into Instagram and Twitter to share the news and to get our post “out there” so that others can potentially find it. I will be successful at getting the posts made… but then it seems like I blink and 20 more minutes have gone by and I am still browsing! Granted, I often defend this distracted time because I have gotten lost on Twitter looking at science news stories and stories about research– so at least I’m learning something… but I’m also burning up valuable time that should go to producing work for upcoming deadlines.
Writing this blog took me several more hours than it probably should have because of multitasking. I’ve been revising and adding to it for 4 hours now–not continuously, but in spurts because my parenting duties keep trumping the academic ones. In that time, I have done the bedtime routine with my little one, and have been back upstairs 4 times to feed her again and soothe her back to sleep. (I think she’s going through a growth spurt!) It’s hell, especially at this hour, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I have mixed feelings about multi-tasking. There was a time in my life where I honestly felt like multitasking made me better at the things I was doing… but after the readings this week, I’m not so sure that is the case. Another thing I’ve been thinking about is a sentiment that I noticed in Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” piece: I have had the growing feeling over the last handful of years that my brain doesn’t quite work like it used to and it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly that means. I don’t feel dumber, but I do feel like there are certain kinds of (“simple”) activities that I have to really work to stop and think about before I can be successful at them. Activities and tasks that could be similar to what the NPR Morning Edition crew discussed in their “Think You’re Multitasking? Think again” podcast.
I may not be the best about multitasking and managing distractions, but I’m doing my best. I’m in a stage of my life right now where multitasking is as “normal” a part of my day as any other part of the routine. I’ve had to adjust my whole way of being to make room for a growing family and I feel privileged that I get to live in this way. At the same time, I recognize that a lot of the things I choose to do while multitasking are not good or healthy. Because of this, I have been taking breaks from Facebook (completely deleting it off my phone and refusing to visit the webpage via computer browser) so that I can get back some of that time that I was wasting.
So while I stay plugged in much of the time, I am beginning to really come around to this idea of unplugging from everything. I want my working hours to be as meaningful as they can possibly be. I want my home life and time spent with my family to be as meaningful as it can possibly be. For me to accomplish this, I am incorporating new practices into my routine and weeding out the distractions that rob me of my productivity and meaningful engagement.
These were all of the articles I read before composing this piece. They all rang true to me in different ways. Sometimes, I find myself being grateful for technology; other times I am stressed beyond belief and all I want to do is escape to the woods for a week of respite. I think the key to anything in this world is moderation–and when you find yourself multitasking to the point where it’s actually getting in the way of being productive, well, then maybe it’s time to consider making a change.
Bilton, N. (2013). “The Science Author Clive Thompson Does Not Think Tech Is Ruining Your Mind.” Bits: Business, Innovation, Technology, Society. The New York Times, online.
Carr, N. (2008). “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.” The Atlantic, online.
NPR. (2008). “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.” Research News on Morning Edition, podcast online.
Taylor, J. (2011). “Technology: Myth of Multitasking. Is multitasking really more efficient?” Psychology Today, online.