I have a memory from childhood, sitting in the family room at my grandmother’s house, doing a math assignment on a folding table while watching my cartoons. While enjoying an episode of The Jetsons, I solved the odd-number problems from the material we had covered that day at school. At that moment, my uncle arrived and told me I shouldn’t do assignments while watching television. Now that I’m a mother, I agree with him, but back then, I would say, “Uncle, it’s math,” as if to say, “I can do this while watching TV.”
At that time, mindfulness was not a thing, but without using that terminology, that was what my uncle meant. That I should be focused on my assignments and be present in that and only that, and that the cartoons were a distraction, much like nowadays Social Media, YouTube, and many other things.
In the past decade, the term mindfulness has become increasingly popular. For those unfamiliar, mindfulness is the act of focusing your attention on the present moment. It is a method to achieve full awareness by centering ourselves on what is happening “here and now,” accepting it as it is without trying to change or judge anything. Its essence is complete consciousness, concentrating on what is happening within and around us while letting go of the noise and distractions.[i]
Some publications define mindfulness as the opposite of multitasking, which the Cambridge Dictionary describes as the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously.[ii] Although the ability to multitask is sometimes seen as a strength, in recent years, several studies and publications have highlighted its negative impact on productivity and memory. What does this mean? Do we now have to live a mindful life? Do we have to be 100% present in everything we do? In theory, that sounds like the optimal way to live, but is it realistic? If, like me, you have the responsibilities of being a parent, household chores, a job, and a desire for a healthy lifestyle and spending time with your loved ones, mindfully performing all these tasks may seem idealistic.
So, recognizing that multitasking is not the best way to approach our tasks but also being realistic about everything we have and want to do, I suggest being conscious and strategic when choosing which tasks to do simultaneously. This is done in an exercise we could call “mindful multitasking.” It means consciously selecting which tasks to multitask with. “Uncle, it’s math.” Math was an easy subject for me, so even at a young age, I understood that when I started working on other assignments, I had to turn off the television and concentrate. Likewise, this process I’m suggesting today should be tailored for each of us.
Now, let’s discuss some tasks I’ve found can sometimes overlap without sacrificing their purpose and others where multitasking should not be an option:
Unless you want to fully immerse yourself in the experience of scrubbing, cooking, folding clothes, or vacuuming and truly enjoy every moment of the process, these are tasks that can be done while multitasking. An excellent way to make the most of this time is by listening to an audiobook. In a household where boys dominate, along with their mud, sports, and action, it’s essential to take advantage of every minute. So, don’t be surprised to see me wearing a facial mask, listening to a book, and folding the week’s laundry. But beware! This doesn’t replace the moments when I sit down to read a book and relax to recharge my energy. For that, it’s essential to set time.
A walk is a perfect time to return phone calls or send voice messages. We often do these tasks at the end of the day after sitting all day. Instead of standing up and walking, we continue to sit down to do these last tasks of the day. As I mentioned, everyone is different and should choose which activities they want to multitask. If your daily walk is the only “quiet” moment you dedicate to yourself, I wouldn’t recommend making phone calls. In that case, this would be one of the moments of the day when you should be mindful. Everything, just like in projects, depends on the goal of the task.
The same goes for running. Those who know me know that I enjoy going for a run in the mornings. Most of the time, I do it while listening to a book or a podcast. Those days, you might see me stopping, taking out my phone, and making notes about something I just heard. In the same way, there are days and times that if I don’t go with the rhythm of Daddy Yankee or Maroon 5, I can’t make it. If you’re not training and you’re running to start your day off better and to be healthier, why not listen to a podcast? However, if you have an upcoming event or it’s your rep’s day, it’s time to be 100% focused on what you’re doing. The same applies if you’re studying for an exam or certification. It all depends on your goal.
In the blog “Productive Meetings: Quantity or Quality?” I mention mindfulness as one of the critical points for having better meetings. Being “here and now” makes us more efficient, avoiding misunderstandings and rework. Similarly, being aware of where our focus is helps us quickly notice when our minds wander away from the present moment, allowing us to react and return to the “here and now.” There will always be meetings that we are invited to where we can perform a simultaneous task. However, in most cases, we should be fully present. If you think there are meetings where the discussions don’t concern you or don’t impact you, it’s worth reconsidering whether you should excuse yourself from that meeting instead of trying to multitask.
I have heard from several people who say that to focus better, they need to do something else, like scrolling through social media or playing with something. I have been a witness to it. Everyone is different, but I can speak for myself. If I am in a meeting or a conversation, the moment I lower my head to respond to something on my phone, “I’m gone.” If it’s a 1-1 conversation, I prefer to say, “Give me a moment, I need to respond to this message.”
Bonding with family, friends, & peers
Sometimes multitasking should not be an option. In my house, when the four of us sit down to eat dinner in the evenings, it’s the only time we are all together during the week. During this time, we find out if it was a good or not-so-good day. My younger son, Sebastián, likes to initiate a dynamic where we share what we enjoyed most about our day and something we didn’t like. Sometimes, we miss out on a wonderful story by answering a message that could easily wait for 30 minutes.
Likewise, how often have you been to a restaurant and looked around to see that most people are on their phones with no interaction between them? Those are the moments when we need to set aside distractions and focus on the present, on the now.
Recognizing the value of mindfulness doesn’t mean that multitasking must be our enemy. I don’t see them as antonyms; on the contrary, I see them as two tools that we should be aware of and know when to apply them. The key is always to know our objective and consciously choose whether we should give our full attention to the activity we are engaged in, being present at 100%.
If you think about your day, what activities can you overlap, or what activity can you add to something you already do? And more importantly, in which activities do you recognize that you currently don’t fully participate, and now you commit to consciously seeking to be fully present?
[ii] Multitasking. Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/multitasking