I knew I had a problem when I began using meditation as a multitasking opportunity.
At the urging of friends who swear by apps like Calm and Headspace, I jumped on the meditation bandwagon during the global upheaval of 2020, hoping it would help me locate the “center” I’d lost beneath piles of laundry and dishes, constant Zoom troubleshooting requests from my kids, my own professional obligations and very vocal reminders from our cat that his food dish was empty again.
But, as a man with a lovely British accent instructed me to breathe and let my mind wander, I realized I was simultaneously planning dinner, wondering which Netflix series to binge next and keeping an ear on my kids in the next room to make sure no one was fighting or injured. When the recording ended, I checked “Meditate” off of my mental to-do list and was no more centered than when I started.
It’s a tired cliché that moms are always tired. But I was, in fact, always tired. Often tired and happy, sometimes tired and stressed, occasionally tired and angry – but tired was the common denominator. When you have a baby, you can chalk fatigue up to a very real lack of sleep, but my kids are reliable sleepers, out of diapers and able to handle quite a few daily tasks on their own. My “mom-of-newborn” level of fatigue at the end of each day wasn’t adding up.
Then it hit me: maybe I was always tired because I was always multitasking. The majority of the time, my body was going through one set of motions while my brain was tackling another. Even when the two were aligned, such as checking and responding to emails, I was shifting rapidly between messages from work, my kids’ school, friends, extremely persistent political organizations, and others. No wonder I was fried by 6pm.
So recently I made a change, and I rediscovered “single-tasking.” This is the process of choosing one activity and focusing on just that one activity until completion; you may remember it from the days before you had kids. When I sat down to respond to work emails, for instance, I opened only work emails and temporarily ignored all other subject lines. More importantly, when I was doing something with one of my kids, I tried to be mentally present the whole time instead of jumping ahead to what needed to happen afterwards.
Of course, as a parent it isn’t possible to single-task all the time or even most of the time. Many of my attempts are derailed. But each time I succeed, I notice that the tasks are completed faster and usually more effectively because I’m giving them my full attention. When that “task” is quality time with my kids or my husband, we all emerge happier and more relaxed when we focus just on each other. From a physical standpoint, I’m also less tired. The feeling hasn’t disappeared entirely, but for my brain, single-tasking is the equivalent of a power nap.
Sometimes we moms wear our multitasking skills as a badge of honor, and rightfully so because the female brain is a force to be reckoned with. But there is a line between multitasking effectively and multitasking to the point of burnout. I came dangerously close this past year, but I’m moving in the right direction, one step – and task – at a time.