Anybody who has taken care of children and has wanted to get anything else done has come to know the importance of multitasking. The children may be bellowing for lunch, and while I’m waiting for the food to heat up, I’m also emptying the dishwasher, switching out a load of laundry, changing the cats’ water, responding to a colleague’s email, picking up books and toys that have been strewn about on the living room floor, running to the bathroom to pee at turbo speed so that no one has the chance to hurt anyone else in my absence. My attention can be divided many different ways, and lots of things can still get done–but I end up feeling a bit rushed, tense, trying to accomplish so much in so little time.
I decided today, when I had a moment to myself, that I was going to try to give all of my attention to just one task, in five minute increments. And this, I decided, was going to feel meditative and restful. I needed to fill out a bunch of paperwork for a new yoga teaching gig with one of the local recreation and parks councils, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. At all. I kind of hate filling out form and form after form. You know the image of someone dangling a carrot in front of a donkey’s nose to keep the beast moving forward? Normally at a time like this, faced with a distasteful task, I offer myself some kind of carrot to keep my attention going in the forward direction, giving me hope for my life after the task is complete. So that’s what I started to do. After I fill those papers out, I told myself, I’m going to let myself write in my journal for a while. Because what I really wanted to do was write in my journal. Not laundry, not paperwork, not lunch preparation, journal.
There is a danger in this offering myself a carrot for motivation, and putting off doing what I really want to do so that I can first handle something I really don’t like. To a bystander this delayed gratification technique might seem like a normal adult thing to do, a good idea. However, I’ve done this enough to realize that I actually don’t get to the thing I really want to do, because there are so many other priorities that take precedence over my desire to create, or rest, or just sit and enjoy a cup of tea. And of course you know what happens when we don’t get to do the thing we really want to do. We sad.
Hence, my idea of five minute increments of “singletasking.” Five minutes is an utterly reasonable period of time to devote all of my attention to something boring, knowing that I will switch to something lovely right after. So I reached for my iPhone, brought up my Insight Timer app, and programmed a sixty minute session with bells ringing every five minutes to signal when it was time to switch tasks.
It worked. I put the paperwork aside when the interval bells rang, and I happily reached for my journal. Oh joy! I’m a fountain pen girl, and I just recently switched the cartridge in my pen to some beautiful turquoise ink. How delicious it was to move from the black and white of tax withholding forms to the creamy pages of my Moleskine Volant journal and the flow of blue-green dancing at the tip of my pen.
Of course, five minutes later, I needed to set the beautiful thing down, and pick up the black pen and get back to the paperwork grindstone. And having to stop my thoughts short, when I was so ready to keep them going down my arm, through my hand, down the pen, and onto the page, well…that felt like…I’d tell you what it felt like, but I’d need to make sure you’re 18 first. Hint: The color blue. Second Hint: Male parts, involved in reproduction. Sigh. Being a woman, I’ve never had to experience firsthand what I’m alluding to, but having had plenty of guy friends tell me all about it, I can safely say that putting the cap on my pen when I’m full of ideas that want to just dance and shout and cry out onto the page is… just like that.
So singletasking. It worked. I must’ve switched back and forth between filling out forms and writing in my journal about four times before the paperwork was done, and it was time to jump into the rest of the morning’s tasks. I finished with my journal, and I felt delighted. Content. Satisfied. And I was ready to tackle getting my son ready to go out into the frigid winter air so that we could 1)Drop off the forms at the rec office, 2)Pick up some groceries, 3)Fetch my daughter from preschool, 4)Return home, put groceries away, prepare lunch.
That moment with my journal and those forms gave me ideas about the same kind of structure applied to different tasks. This afternoon I rolled out my yoga mat, and dragged the three brimming baskets of clean laundry to the table to fold. I set the timer. I was ready to practice yoga and fold laundry in five minute increments. I am going to save the world! This is great! I was pretty excited to see how this was going to unfold. Or should I say, fold?
But then my neighbor came over with her son. My mat got rolled up and stowed against the wall. Her son joined my two kids who were parked in front of the TV watching a movie, and I folded the three loads of laundry while we talked. The female companionship was just as good–if not better–than practicing asana. Time ceased to exist while I listened and was heard. But that is another story for another day.