Friday, January 7, 2011

Mindfully Multitasking

If I had thousands of readers, thousands of people would be screaming "oxymoron" at my blog title. Since I'm pretty sure this blog isn't read by thousands, or even hundreds, of people, I think I can get away with it.

Multitasking has gotten a bad rap. Hear "multitasking" and most of us picture stressed-out office workers, desks piled high with papers and folders, dropping one task every time another piece of paper gets dumped in the mix and never finishing anything. I am no longer a stressed-out office worker, but, honestly, I couldn't get through the day without multitasking.

Instead of thinking of multitasking as trying to do ten things at once and not really doing anything, I consider multitasking the ability to switch focus from one thing to another in an organized, mindful way so everything gets done. Anyone who is managing a household, a business and several volunteer endeavors has to multitask. Really, anyone who's ever had to get dinner on the table needs multitasking skills.

Imagine making a simple dinner of spaghetti with sauce and a salad. Can you put water on the stove to boil and keep your focus on the water until it does? Then watch the spaghetti cook? Of course not, unless you're okay not eating until midnight and can deal with a mutiny by hungry children. While the water is coming up to boil there's time to make the salad. While the spaghetti cooks you heat the sauce. Have you forgotten all about the water while you're tearing lettuce? Of course not. You are mindfully multitasking, switching your focus from the water to the salad at the appropriate time, then bringing your awareness back to the pot when it's time to add the pasta.

Even on your yoga mat, that haven of mindfulness and focus, you practice multitasking. You move into the alignment of an asana, make sure you are steady and feeling open where you should be open, then bring your focus to your breath. Unless the yoga teacher comes by and knocks you over (no, we don't do that, so all of my students can stop the gasping), you don't just fall down because you stopped paying attention to what your muscles are doing. When it's time to come out of the pose and your focus moves back to your muscles, you don't stop breathing.

The mindfulness of multitasking comes with the awareness of deliberate, conscious shifts of focus. When the next piece of paper gets thrown on your desk and distracts you from your current task, notice if you chose to change focus or if you unconsciously assumed that the new thing was the most important. By taking a moment to evaluate the new task and deciding if it needs immediate attention or not, you can better plan where your focus will go and if you can truly do two things at once. Like making a salad while waiting for the pot of water to boil, there are some jobs that can be done at the same time: printing a stack of fliers while making phone calls, for instance, or holding an asana and breathing.

Awareness may be the most powerful benefit of your yoga practice. Spend an hour watching where your focus goes. Then take control and start mindfully multitasking. It works for me. I folded a load of laundry while I wrote this.
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