Monday, March 29, 2010

The Myth of Multi-tasking

Having a restless muse may mean I am never bored, but I do find myself overwhelmed at times and torn in too many directions when deadlines overlap and suddenly everything is due all at once. It definitely isn't for the faint of heart, or the organizationally challenged. The goal as with most aspects of life is an easy grace, an organic vacillation between one task and another. This is not the same as multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking is the mythological ability to do mutliple things at one time. The truth is, you can only be conciously aware of whatever you're doing right this minute. So while it is true you can balance a baby on your hip while you stir the soup, or let the printer run while you answer the phone, your conciousness will move back and forth between the baby and the stove, the printer and the telephone. Too much of this is exhausting, especially when the multiple tasks are, in themselves, complicated and demanding. Ask any receptionist or secretary--and I've been both, so just ask me--it is really, really hard to keep track of what everyone is calling about and who is holding for whom when you have 12 incoming phone lines, and even harder if you are supposed to open and sort the mail, make photocopies and format a document at the same time. I managed by jotting down on scratch paper the names of all the holding callers and whom they were holding for. But I left the day with my ears buzzing, and as I waited at the bus stop I'd continue to hear a non-existent phone ringing. I could do it, but it took a toll.

Contrary to what the current generation may think, it is patently impossible to listen to the person before you while you are texting some one else. Your companion suffers because you are not listening in the deep way that validates what she is saying. Neither the person you are texting nor the person you are with can expect your response to be thoughtful or sensitive. And you suffer too--from the fatigue that comes with switching focus constantly and quickly from one thing to another, from the shallowness of remarks and responses that are absent of careful reflection, and from the paradoxical disconnection of a society that is exchanging words at an exponential rate without really communicating anything worthwhile. For can there be real communication without communion? Can our souls connect when we are only half-attending one another?

Children know the difference and are quick to point it out. "Mommy, mommy, mommy" the young child chants until you finally turn from what you are doing to focus on them and their needs. "You are not listening!" the adolescent accuses when we "Mmhm" without looking away from the computer screen.

My restless muse challenges me to honor all the creative energy and talents that are my gifts and which I should and need to share. It challenges me most of all to choose where my attention should be in this moment. I have discovered by trying to be and do everything at once, that it is impossible to be a writer and musician at the same time. Right now I am a writer working on this blog. In an hour I will be a housewife cleaning, mending clothes or running errands, then a mother picking my child up from school, then a piano teacher with six little students trooping in one-by-one, then a wife helping my husband with the dishes, then a tired lady ready for a bubble bath and a comfy bed. This is what people mean by "juggling". The juggler is only conciously aware of the ball she has to throw this spit-second, or the one she has to catch in the next. She can't think about the ones hanging in the air. If I am playing a complicated piece, I can't worry about the wrong note I just hit, or the difficult passage coming up. If I do, if my concentration leaves the current phrase, I will not be present and I will not play the notes in the way I intend to play them. I also can't be thinking about what to make for dinner or how to sew a Halloween costume or how to respond to a difficult email. In the moment of the present measure, all other voices must be silenced.

It isn't easy and I don't always get it right. But I keep trying knowing that it's the only way to do what I was put here to do, to be what I was meant to be. For my life is like an enormous wheel. It takes all the spokes to keep it turning.