Technology and the Myth of Multi-tasking

We women like to flatter ourselves that we are natural “multi-taskers.” I suppose it is a convenient notion that may help us feel more capable of juggling the many balls we try to keep in the air between family, work and community responsibilities.

However, women don’t seem to be the only ones convinced of some special multi-tasking ability. Today’s fast-paced and hyper-connected world makes overlapping demands on everyone’s attention. And with the advent of smart devices so small they can fit on a watch we have come to feel confident that we can keep tabs on everything at once and not miss out.

Unfortunately, both science and intuition tell us this is false.

Neuroscientist and MIT professor Earl Miller tells us: “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves…The brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.
“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.” *

Are these statements a revelation to anybody out there? I would expect not. When I read this article, it rang true because of the evidence of this that I see in my life. Technology and media seem to have done a particularly good job of convincing us that we CAN mulit-task; that we can be constantly plugged-in and still fulfill all our obligations, build and maintain healthy relationships, and cultivate inner-peace. If you contemplate the following scenarios with me I think you agree that this simply is not so.

Think about the last time you cruised Instagram, ESPN or Pinterest while your spouse was telling you about their project at work or something that had upset them that day. Did you catch much of what they said or what it meant for them and for you? We may be good at letting out an occasional “mmm hmmm,” or “Wow” or “really?” to convince ourselves and those around us that we are truly engaged with them. But are we? Or are we “deluding” ourselves?

Do I complain about not having enough time with my husband and then find myself hanging with technology and online updates while sitting next to him instead of really connecting once our kids are finally in bed?

Do you or I ever scroll through a newsfeed when talking on the phone with somebody? What kind of jerk-move is that anyways?! Somebody takes the time to call me (in a world where no one calls anymore) because they want to connect. Yet I just have to fulfill that jittery desire to do two things at once–to have my finger on two pulses. Who am I helping here? Does my newsfeed really need the listening ear more than my friend does? And do I need that connection to a world of superficial “friendships” more than I need my real-life connection to a good friend?

Am I a stay-at-home mom in body only if I am constantly disrupting interactions with my precious children by checking up on every ping from my phone? Or am I checking out and getting lost online when they need my attention and connection with them? If I am not devoting my mind and attention to these little beings, why stay home under that pretense?

And do I truly feel relaxed or fulfilled when I hop online at the end of a long day to “unwind” through mindlessly scrolling? Would my soul be more satisfied by spending time alone with myself? Might my inner-self benefit through meditating, reading a book, or exerting some of my restless energy in a creative outlet?

These questions are not intended to provoke feelings of guilt, only to help us all reflect on the unnoticed ways our technology use may be fraying our relationships with ourselves and with others. So often technology seems an inseparable part of our lives. I am not advocating a complete, ascetic type denial of all things that come with screens. What I am advocating is greater awareness, balance, and separation at needed intervals so that we can connect with ourselves and with those around us and find joy in our lives.

I expect that most of us want to focus more of our energy on our relationships offline than we do online. We know that is the better investment. But how do we get there? How do we change our habits?

Firstly, we must honestly acknowledge where we need to improve. We all know what those areas are–but they make us a bit uncomfy. So we ignore the nudges we feel or drown out the nagging voice that is telling us when and how to unplug and reconnect. Start listening to that voice. Examine your habits and commit to making a positive change. Start with small changes and build on the positive habits you are establishing.

If you are looking for a starting place in an effort to “unplug”, here are some suggestions of things that have worked well in our family to keep things better balanced:

Designate an hour at which you will unplug from all media and do something truly fulfilling or relaxing. My husband and I have made the hour before bed-time media free and have noticed huge benefits individually and as a couple. I also recommend starting the day unplugged. I have found I am much more energized throughout the day when I start my day in meditation, reading, or exercise rather than plunging directly into the whirlpool waiting for me on my phone or laptop.

Make mealtimes nourishing by unplugging. Studies show that sharing meals with others is a powerfully connective and nourishing experience for us humans. Connecting with one another at mealtimes builds trust, confidence, and community among those who share the table. If you are eating alone, take the opportunity to connect with yourself by putting away distractions and allowing your thoughts to rest and to blossom. Although it can be challenging at first to turn off the TV and not check your phone during meals, you will notice a positive difference in yourself and in your relationships.

Silence your phone and check it at regular (not constant) intervals during the day. This has helped me to engage fully with my life and to feel a great deal of joy by doing so. I am less distracted and fragmented and have found that I have more mental/emotional capacity available to offer my children.

Leave the phone in the car (or at least silence it) when you are out with friends or family. Show your loved ones that they come first and that you are more eager to hear what comes out of their mouths during your time together than what a politician tweets or an acquaintance posts.

These suggestions might sound like a lot to take on at once and if that’s the case, start with one or two of these ideas or one that you come up with. Making changes to live more fully offline than online may feel quite counter-culture. But you will not be alone if you take on the project. Growing numbers of people are feeling dissatisfied with a life where attentive face-to-face relationships and inner peace are being exchanged for new hardware and better apps. You will find that your efforts will be rewarded and that once you start to intentionally unplug, your soul will feel hungry for more and more time to yourself. If it feels hard to make changes or if you wonder if it is worth it, just remember this–your phone will likely be dead in two years. Your relationships (with both yourself and others) will last forever. Where, then, do you want to invest the energies of your soul?
How have you set personal boundaries to allow you to have healthy relationships with technology and to maintain your face-to-face relationships? What are the challenges of attempting to unplug and do you have any tips for others seeking to do the same?

*Quotes are taken from “Think You’re Multi-tasking? Think Again” by Jon Hamilton, NPR news. Find the full article at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794

The Best Accident

This is a post from last winter on another blog I keep. I’m posting it here because it feels very relevant to my next post, which re-visits my ongoing efforts to unplug and connect.

flutter and rise

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Hey guys, the strangest thing happened to me this week. Strange and wonderful. I know that to many of you this may sound irrational or even heretical. But here it is: I have renounced my smart phone. At least for the time being. Before you rush off to find me a psychiatrist, please let me explain.
It happened last Saturday. The stage was set for me to accomplish a ton of housework in one afternoon. My three year old was down for a rare nap and my one year old was feeling particularly cooperative (or so it seemed.) I laundry-ed, cleaned bathrooms, picked up and vacuumed, tackled the kitchen and then set out to mop. I was feeling a bit on top of the world, because, if you know me well, you know that it’s not every day that my house gets such an extensive spa treatment. I had my…

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Changing perspectives: A new metric for success

*This blog is designed to uplift others through sharing insights I have had on my journey as a mom. I do not suggest that all women should stay home and be moms, but rather that all women and men should search their inner selves to find their life’s greatest calling, and then give themselves entirely to it.

 

At the time I got pregnant with my son, I was into a lot of things. I was loving young married life and working full-time as a professional conference and event planner. In my position, I supervised dynamic teams, and partnered with community organizations to plan and carry out events for groups upwards of 7,000 people. I loved my job. It was exhausting but exhilarating. My professional trajectory was beginning to take shape—I would continue in my job, attend graduate school (I had been accepted to a couple of programs) and work towards my dream of someday starting several non-profits that would affect positive change in the world.

When I found out I was pregnant with Henry, I had some big choices to make. Was I going to continue on this trajectory that I had felt so excited about and focus on accomplishing my professional dreams? Or was I going to put that world on hold and stay home to be Henry’s primary nurturer, teacher and caregiver.

I knew inside what I felt. I had always known I wanted to stay at home to raise my kids. But part of me, a big part of me, also wanted those other things. With the support of my sweet husband (who would’ve supported me in either decision) I decided to put my other dreams on hold and focus on the dream of being a mom. I notified both my employer and the graduate program of my plans. Both my employer and the university were very supportive and kind towards me in regards to my decision.

And so began my journey into motherhood. I left everything I had known and threw myself headlong into a completely new world. As my delivery neared, I readied the nursery, packed my diaper bag, cooked meals to freeze, and did everything I could possibly think of to be prepared. But as all parents know, there is really no way to be entirely prepared for parenthood. It is a learning journey. It is a growing journey.

Both my husband and I were absolutely enchanted with our new little son. I was so in love with this tiny little peanut, I had no desire to do anything but snuggle him and look at him. That lasted for a long time.

But then, after several months, something inside me started to grow restless. I began to yearn for some of the things I had left for this child. It was not that I missed my job specifically, no. I missed the validation I got from it. The validation I had had my whole life through school, or sports, or music. You see, we grow accustomed to evaluating ourselves based on very exterior factors. When we perform well it is easy to measure both effort and success. We also often receive praise for our efforts or performance and can tell ourselves “I did a good job. I am having success with this.”

Motherhood is not that way. No one tells you at the end of the day, “Wow! I noticed you changed eight diapers today and prevented your baby from getting a diaper rash. Good job!” or “You did it! You cleaned the kitchen!” You know why? The visible accomplishments of child rearing and housekeeping appear simple and mundane. However, the outside indicators of the work of motherhood are not accurate reflections of the real work that is going on. The real work of mothering is not easy to discern when looking for immediate results. For example, it is impossible for anyone to know how you are shaping the development of your child’s brain by reading and talking to him or listening to music and dancing in the kitchen together. There is no way for anyone to know the emotional wellness you are helping build in your child by treating him with genuine love, compassion, and patience or how you are building in him a positive self-image with your words and actions all day long. No one can know the diseases and health conditions that may be avoided throughout your child’s life because you taught him how to be healthy.

You see, parents are agents of becoming. A parent’s success has absolutely nothing to do with accomplishment. It has nothing to do with outside praise or recognition. It has everything to do with your heart and your effort. And you are the only one who knows how well you are doing in those two areas.

I realized during that period of restlessness that I needed to adopt a new metric for evaluating success. I knew there was no rubric for me to measure myself up to, no boxes I could check to know if I was doing “OK.” This new method would require regular and honest evaluation of my heart (my motives, feelings and attachments) and my effort. I have learned that this type of internal self-evaluation is much more difficult than measuring success based on external expectations. It is more honest, more self-revealing and in my experience more powerful at effecting real change when change is necessary.

Since I took this intuitive approach to self-evaluation, I have found that I am better able to recognize when I am doing my job well. I am able to feel great satisfaction when I am giving my all to my family, regardless of whether my kitchen is spotless or the laundry is done. Rather than judging my day (and myself) by how much I “got done,” I now examine how well I loved, listened to and interacted with my kids.

Perhaps the greatest contribution we can make to this world comes in the form of the next generation, those booger-faced kids who right now are pestering you for more peanut butter and jelly. If you and I can facilitate the “becoming” of intelligent, honest, compassionate and hard-working people, then we have truly changed the world for the better.

Learning to Choose

When I was a child I always felt a thrill of excitement when an adult asked me the classic question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My little sister would always pipe up “a mom” when she was asked this question. I would think “boring” and then rattle off my auspicious list. “An author, a violinist, a singer, a soccer player, an actor, an artist, a scientist.” The adult would smile patronizingly and think “what a cute, confused answer.” What they didn’t know is that I DID want to do everything. And I thought I could.
My mother faced a similar challenge with me as I grew older and starting to acquire extra-curricular activities and commitments. I wanted swim AND do track AND soccer AND be in the plays and musicals, sing in the choir, take dance lessons and violin and guitar. I filled positions in student leadership such as class president and student body commissioner, registered a schedule full of honors and AP classes, took on leadership positions in student clubs, and continued taking art and producing pieces for art contests and competitions. All the while I kept my social calendar full of boys and friends and who knows what. Are you exhausted yet?
I recall one afternoon, when I felt particularly overwhelmed, my mother threw up her hands in exasperation and exclaimed “You can’t do EVERYTHING!!”
I remember thinking, why not?? I just LOVED everything. But I frequently ran into this problem—I would pile I little bit of everything on my plate because I just wanted to try it, or I thought it would be interesting, or thought I would be good at it. And before I knew it, my plate would be too full and I would become overwhelmed.
I continued to live this way through my college years—achieving great success and scholarships along the way, but I don’t feel I was entirely satisfied with my life. You see, I had failed to learn what my mother patiently tried to teach me all those years. You have to choose. We can’t be everything, we can’t do everything. If we want to be satisfied and feel fulfilled with our lives we have to choose the things that are most important to us.
I feel that I only recently have begun to learn these lessons. How does a chronic over-achiever like myself learn to choose and simplify? Well, simply put—she has a baby and decides to stay home to raise him.
Keeping my commitment to give up my professional career and some other exacting pursuits to become a career mom has been one of the most challenging endeavors of my life. It has required a lot of mental discipline for me to remain focused on my goals and a lot of emotional awareness to keep tabs on my contentedness and make sure I am doing what I need to do to feel fulfilled. But let me tell you—no professional accomplishment, no academic achievement and no leadership position has ever even approached the depth of joy and fulfillment that I experience when I am fully engaged in my job as a wife and mother, working full-time in my home to care for, nurture and teach my family.