18 July 2015

When multi-tasking went wrong

Ever felt overwhelmed with too much ‘stuff’ in your space and a cotton wool head? I think I’m pretty good at clearing clutter and keeping focused (my life’s work for the last 23 years has been to help others with that very issue), but one day I fell back into the insidious bog of overwhelm – and two of my grandbabies bookmarked the lesson.

The one-year-old had just been weaned so, to my delight, Mum and Dad seized the chance to have a child-free weekend.

Multi-tasking has its place but attempting to do computer work while playing with children is not one of them.

Read also:
‘No’ is your most powerful time management tool
Seize the moment

The two days were as busy as you’d expect with two little boys. Cars, soft toys, wooden blocks and dinosaurs littered my normally immaculate house. The two-year-old practiced his Tigger bounces (sometimes on top of his brother), and his loudest and fastest driving skills on Grandma’s beaten-up old plastic bike.

The baby’s smiling face kept popping up in unexpected places – he was practising his 0.005 km. per hour crawling skills.

I’m sure you get the scene – it was busy and we had fun. In between multiple rounds of sleeping, eating and cleaning up we fitted in walks, a harbour cruise and a visitor who brought her own toy box of deliciously different treasures.

However, there was one small challenge. In amongst the joys of playing grannie I had to fit in a few hours of my own work. Normally I avoid grown-up work when I’ve got kids to play with, but a very important deadline had queue-jumped.

The baby did his useful sleep times, the toddler was easily seduced by Winnie the Pooh (whilst his grandmother wondered how the heck she managed her own six kids with no DVD!), and I made some progress (but certainly not the normal output).

Picture this scene. We’re now up to late Sunday afternoon. Baby’s bopping, toddler’s bouncing (why did I let him watch Winnie the Pooh?), the floor is even more littered, parents are still two hours away, dinner is starting to bubble and boil, laptop is humming on at the kitchen bench (anywhere else and someone might kill either themselves or the computer), important papers tango with the tomatoes, and my brain is starting to fry.

Dodging from task to task is a sure recipe for frustration, as well as being very inefficient.

Finally it dawned on me – I was feeling stressed and uncomfortable. Why? What was wrong? And then, all of a sudden it hit me.

‘What am I doing?’ I exclaimed to the baby, who just grinned gummily.

With a sense of purpose missing for the previous few hours, I zoomed in, switched off the distracting lump of metal, and bundled everything remotely looking like Big Person work down to where it belonged – my office down the hall.

Back in the kitchen I looked around. The child chaos was just the same but a huge ton of stress had vanished. And then I realised – the sense of freedom was exactly the same as my clients describe when I’ve taught them how to clean up their offices.

As I reflected, I realised this simple and common little domestic scene had at least three messages for us all.

1. Every item in our space is connected to us with an invisible energy cord. If you ask yourself, ‘Does this energise me, or weigh me down?’ you’ll quickly know if you should shift or eliminate something.

2. The heavy feeling was also because I was trying to do incompatible activities. Multi-tasking has its place, but this wasn’t one of them. The result was dissatisfaction and stress. I wasn’t giving my best to my two dear little Tigger-types, and nor was I achieving anything with the proposal – I couldn’t concentrate enough to do good work.

3. We all need reminders. I know this stuff, and I still got seduced by trying to do two things at the same time.

(And in case you’re wondering, the proposal was easily handled once they’d gone – when I could concentrate.)

In summary:
1. Keep things simple.
2. Dodging from task to task is a sure recipe for frustration, as well as being very inefficient.
3. Learn from our children. Live in the moment. How many times do we wish we had more time with loved ones, and then we try to do other things at the same time? Even the cleverest people can really only focus on one significant thing at a time.

This article also appears in Robyn’s regular New Zealand Herald Online column

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