Hi. This is a picture of me from a few weeks ago. I was living like I had 6 arms.
“Like a chicken with my head cut off”
Last week, I complained to my spiritual director about constantly feeling scatterbrained. “I run around like a chicken with my head cut off. Something is always falling through the cracks–nothing big, but just enough to make me feel like I’m not on top of things.”
Since our meeting, I heard Danielle Bean’s episode #43 of the Girlfriends Podcast. The title? “Do One Thing at a Time.”
“You owe it to yourself to do just one thing at a time. In fact, you owe it to the people in your life to do just one thing at a time because, you know what suffers when you do too many things at a time? Our relationships suffer.” (Danielle Bean, The Girlfriends Podcast)
Multitasking is a perennial source of contention between me and Philip. I pride myself in multitasking and get frustrated with Philip when I think he’s not multitasking enough. Philip, on the other hand, likes to work swiftly and linearly, hammering out tasks one at a time.
One night a few weeks ago after the kids were in bed, we were disagreeing about something to do with disciplining the kids. I was trying to wipe down the kitchen counters while we talked, and it bothered Philip that I wasn’t giving our conversation all of my attention.
“Can’t you please stop and look at me while we talk?”
“I am listening.”
I was hearing Philip, but I wasn’t listening. I wasn’t showing him that I valued what he had to say. Our conversation was important, and I didn’t show him that with my body language. Instead of scrubbing at the stubborn grease splatter on the countertop, I should have given him my eyes.
I ask the same of our children multiple times each day.
“Give me your eyes, please.”
“Can you please stop what you’re doing so that I know you heard me?”
“Look at Jane when you apologize.”
Before I listened to the Do One Thing at a Time podcast, I thought that multitasking meant that I was working smart. Doesn’t it mean I’m being more efficient if I’m doing a bunch of things at once? Nurse the baby and check e-mail. Help with homework and move the laundry. Hear about the kids’ days and load the dishwasher. (Turns out that handsome husband of mine was right about his linear, singular approach to things. Let’s not dwell on that, though!)
In the podcast, Danielle said that our relationships suffer most when we multitask, and she is right. That is exactly what suffered most that night when Philip and I were talking about how to discipline the kids. A clean countertop was not worth Philip’s hurt feelings. It made me wonder how many times my children acting out was a result of my multitasking. There is always more work that we can be doing, but at what cost?
After listening to the Do One Thing at a Time podcast, I realized that chronic multitasking was leaving me scattered, drained, exhausted, and feeling like I wasn’t doing any one thing well. It had a real physical and emotional cost. Having my constant to-dos running through my head made me feel physically depleted and emotionally like I was always failing. I thought maybe we were over-committed. After looking long and hard at our calendar together, Philip and I agreed that we commit ourselves to things outside our home in a healthy way and that maybe this feeling of drowning came from somewhere else. Danielle’s podcast helped me to see that the anxiety came from the self-imposed stress that chronic multitasking gave me.
I hear a not-so-little achiever Type-A recovering perfectionist voice in me saying, “C’mon, Catherine. This isn’t realistic. There is just SO MUCH that has to be done everyday. You HAVE TO multitask.” I get it, people. There’s a lot that goes in to getting any family from sun up to sun down. Some natural juggling has to happen throughout the day. My trick is asking myself, “Is this multitasking necessary, or is it contributing to the chaos?” While I have to feed the baby while I help with homework, I don’t have to move the laundry while I’m hearing about the first grader’s day. If I’m multitasking at the expense of a relationship, the task I’m doing
almost always can wait. I need to give myself the permission to do one thing at a time.
Permission and Practice, Practice, Practice
It sounds so silly, but when Danielle said that I have permission to do one thing at a time, I felt so much relief. Of course I’ve always had this permission, but I had imposed all of these burdens on myself to keep too many fires going at the same time. Now, that being said, I had to remind myself that motherhood is, as Kimberly Hahn said, an “apostolate of interruption.” Some of the interruptions that happen throughout my day are actually the real work I’m supposed to be doing. It’s easier to tend to them when I’m doing one thing at a time. It’s easier to pull myself away emotionally and physically from a singular task than five.
I’ve been practicing this one thing at a time stuff for a little over a week. Let me tell you, it takes some getting used to! When was the last time you watched a show without getting on another screen or doing another task like folding laundry? To get myself into the practice of doing one thing at a time, I took Danielle’s recommendation to use the timer on my phone to “interrupt you on purpose” every 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, she says to check yourself with these questions: What am I doing, physically? How many tasks am I trying to accomplish right now? Is it just one? What am I thinking about? What’s pulling me away? What’s distracting me? What have I been occupied with?
I stopped setting the timer after awhile, but this exercise helped me to stay on track. Setting the timer made me realize that I was addicted to multitasking as a way of hammering out my to-do list. Instead of being slow, linear, and methodical about my approach to the day, I was running from task to task, almost getting a thrill out of doing as much as humanly possible all at once. Why?! Since I started paying more attention to my addiction to multitasking, I realized that I’m actually accomplishing more on the days that I stick to doing one thing at a time. My mind is freer from the clutter. I’m less physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day.
In addition to the timer, I’m doing a few other simple things to remove my distractions.
- To-Do List
- My running to-do list orders my day. I have 3 different categories: DO, GO/BUY, and CALL/EMAIL. I’m old school and keep it on a small memo pad that can come with me anywhere. Having it on my nightstand helps me to clear my mind of clutter at bedtime.
- E-mail and Phone Date
- Instead of checking e-mail on my phone multiple times a day, I like I schedule 10-15 minutes everyday dedicated exclusively to e-mail on the laptop. I’m trying to change expectations with my e-mails and texts that I will get back, but I won’t always respond right away.
Doing one thing at a time has its benefits. My mind feels like it has the space it needs to breathe between tasks, and I don’t feel stretched to my limits at every moment anymore. The quality of my work is drastically better. I’m on top of the housework, I’m current on my correspondence, and I’m finding pockets of time for silence. (More on that silence component another time.)
All of this made me stop and think about why I was chronically multitasking in the first place. The hard truth was this: I had too much of my self worth as a stay at home mom tied up in how the kids were behaving and how clean the house was. Multitasking was my way of keeping myself busy, busy, busy. When I was busy, busy, busy, I told myself that doing, doing, doing meant an A+ on my imaginary mom report card. It’s so embarrassing to write those words, but it’s the truth. This little experiment with doing things one thing at a time is showing me that, yes, there is plenty that needs to get done around here, but that God will provide me with exactly the graces and time I need to get them done one at a time. Everything else? (Cue the Frozen soundtrack.) LET IT GO!
I love starting my day with my coffee, Bible study, and to-do list. Once I’m done with my morning prayers, I ask God to multiply my time and show me the things I need to accomplish that day. With His grace, I’m getting more done doing things one thing at a time, but I think it’s because of my shift in attitude. In his book, The Virtue Driven Life, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., says, “Enjoy what’s going on while it’s going on. If you go to the supermarket, enjoy it. Don’t make it drudgery. Talk to the cashier. Speak to the people at the fruit counter. Chat with a neighbor. Try to get to know people, get them to talk to you, and make your passage through life pleasurable.” I may not enjoy everything that’s going on while it’s going on (who actually enjoys scrubbing the toilet?), but at least I’m facing the realities of this homemaking thing head on now that I’m not multitasking all the time. My loved ones are getting my eyes, I’m getting room to breathe, and God’s finding a way to get all of the necessary stuff done.