One thing at a time…
Sometimes we have major stressors in our lives, like financial or relationship problems, or insecurity about our employment. But there are also many smaller-scale situations that contribute to our stress too. For me, these include dealing with the demands of parenting. And it’s often small things, like getting the kids out of the door and responding to their questions that are triggers for me being sharp with them.
And one thing I’ve noticed is how these small-scale situations are usually only stressful when I’m multi-tasking. So if the kids try to ask me something when I have part of my attention on emailing a friend, I’ll snap at them. If I’m busy thinking about a financial problem at work, then the same thing happens — the kids want something from me, I automatically perceive it as a threat, and I react in a stressed way. And of course behaving like this with my children brings a whole set of other problems!
There are time when I have to multitask, of course. When I’m cooking for example, I’m usually switching rapidly between stirring a couple of pots, chopping ingredients, and keeping an eye on the time. It’s inevitable. But adding one more task to the mix — even just quickly replying to a text message — leads to a seemingly exponential rise in stress levels. Add in a question from one of the kids, and my poor system can’t cope!
Our minds were not designed to multitask. When we attempt to do so, something has to give. One of the first tasks to go is our ability to regulate our emotions, and so we end up behaving more aggressively toward others. We also aren’t able to maintain a sense of calm and balance by reassuring ourselves and keeping things in perspective, and end up with that familiar feeling of being frazzled and overwhelmed. Multitasking triggers a “danger” alert, because on some level our brains detect being over-burdened as a threat. Reducing our cognitive burden frees up our mental resources so that we can remember to be kind and reasonable in our interactions, and remain calmer, rather than feeling frazzled.
So I find that it’s important not to multitask. Instead, I try to unitask! The text message that comes in while I’m cooking? It can wait. A delay of ten minutes will rarely cause any problems. If I’m writing that email and the kids ask me questions, then I stop emailing mid-word and let my attention “snap” to them (rather than snapping at them!). Any attempt to keep going with that activity creates sense of emotional tension that quickly becomes unbearable. Often when I’m working I silence my phone so that I can work undisturbed. I sometimes do that when I’m home with the kids, too. And as for thinking about work problems, putting my full attention on what I’m actually doing in that moment helps to reduce my cognitive burden and to keep my mind clear.
So this is something to work with. First, we need to become aware of our tendency to multitask, because we often do it so much that we aren’t ever conscious it’s happening. (And multitasking may not mean literally doing several things at once. It can include rapidly switching from one task to another.)
Note that we’re not aiming for perfection. There are times we have to do more than one thing at a time (cooking and talking to family members, for example). But we can aim for improvement. Being fully present with what we’re doing, resisting the temptation to add one more activity (like sending a quick text in the middle of writing an email), and switching off notifications and ringers when we can, all help to reduce our cognitive burden and help us to reduce our stress levels.
As well as trying the suggestions above, try taking a few mindful breaths between activities. After sending off an email, rather than immediately picking up the phone to make a call, take three or four breaths first.
Worried that it’ll make you less efficient? No need! Research has shown that multitaskers are up to 40% less efficient than people who work mindfully and who avoid multitasking.
New Hampshire weekend Stress Reduction retreat, April 21–23
On this weekend we’ll have a gentle program of workshops, talks, discussions, and meditations—including guided meditations. There will be time for rest, relaxation, and exploration.
The retreat will take place in the beautiful surroundings of the Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire.
The event is residential, and vegetarian food will be provided. The accommodation is in two-person rooms.
Portions of the retreat will be in silence, with communication limited only to what is necessary and functional.
The retreat will begin at 6:00 PM on Friday and end at 1:00 PM on Sunday.