I realize this is not a unique opinion, but I really, truly dislike multitasking. I have never been good at doing more than one thing at a time, and I enjoy the simplicity of focusing on the task at hand. I like to do the thing, while I’m doing it, and that’s it.
I’ve always been pretty sensitive to distractions, but I didn’t really think about it as not being able to multitask well until I hit adulthood, especially when it came to work. I never liked studying with the TV or music on (instrumental jazz or classical notwithstanding). I didn’t mind playing sports that seemed boring to others, like swimming and running. In fact, I kind of liked how “boring” they were, because I could really focus. When you’re swimming miles a day, the rhythm of your strokes becomes soothing, not dull. I also have always enjoyed studying alone (I suppose this is not the first time I’ve mentioned it), and reading is an activity I have always liked to do solo – doing both, I’m incredibly sensitive to the noise and comfort around me. It doesn’t have to be silent, but I like things to be a certain way, to be just so.
And then when I started working, especially in my communications/PR career, where the pace can be intense, I found myself attempting to multitask more and more. And things were never just so, the tasks at hand were never my sole focus. I felt constant pressure to do as much as possible within my work day, writing emails during calls and IMing with colleagues as I mapped out strategic plans. And though I worked remotely a lot of the time, whenever I had to work in an open-floor-plan office, I wanted to tear my hair out (another rant for another time). I already knew that I was a person who needed space and time to focus, but was trying to resist who I was at my core in order to get the job done, and getting really frustrated and flustered in the process.
Though studies have shown that multitasking does not, in fact, make us more efficient, it doesn’t stop people from trying to do it or from pushing the ideal of multitasking onto other people. But perhaps it’s time for everyone, especially those of us who are on the extreme end of being anti-multitaskers, to accept this truth and allow people to work within their natures.
Again, this is not a new or original idea! But it’s an important one. I’m not arguing for mindfulness here, exactly, but I don’t know that anyone is at their best when they try to meet the demands of two tasks at once. And honestly, sometimes it seems like more work, more for me to think about, in order to make my life that efficient. Yesterday, I unloaded the dishwasher, and that was it. It was silent, I was not listening to a podcast or music and I wasn’t on a call. I just did it. And thinking about, “oh I need to find my headphones and then turn on a new podcast” before I could unload the dishwasher or pick up stuff around the kitchen just seemed like it would have slowed me down. It wasn’t worth it to me to “maximize” what I was doing by learning or absorbing information while I did it. Sometimes, I like quiet and just not doing or thinking of anything else while I fold laundry or jot down my to-do list. And most of the time, there’s enough going on in my brain anyway.
Are you a multitasker? Or are you in the anti-multitasking club with me?
Of all the things I’ve learned about myself during this pandemic, the most astounding is how much space I need. Though it shouldn’t be so surprising that I learned how much breathing room I require when the world of almost everyone I know has shrunk so significantly.
While some people have found more time to devote to leisure and side projects lately, around here time is precious. We now have a very active almost-two-year-old son at home with us full-time (and have since March), and any free moment we had during our work days is completely gone – part of the reason I transitioned to freelance work. Two adults working in high-pressure jobs while trying to alternate on childcare (and now attempting to teach colors and numbers and letters!) was tough. But even with a reduction in work hours (and a three-month complete break, which I was lucky to be able to take), time is scarce, and a two-hour window during naptime usually gives me just enough time to quickly clean up from our tornado of a toddler and write or work for 45 minutes. Of course, we’re not unique in having less time – I think every working parent who does not have childcare or does not feel comfortable using available childcare feels the same way.
And we’re also not unique in feeling trapped in our space. Before the pandemic, our 1000-square-foot home in DC felt like plenty of space – after all, we had the whole city to roam, with different neighborhoods to explore every weekend and what felt like endless options for culture and food. But now, with three of us at home at all times, it can feel like… a lot. Our bedroom is now a makeshift office, and the kitchen table in our one-room main floor is taken over by laptops, pens, and toddler board books (open concept is a little less appealing when everyone is home all the time). When our son is napping, we can each find our own space, either by heading to different rooms or one of us going on a walk, but the rest of the day, it feels a bit like we’re breathing down each others’ necks, especially when we’re not used to working in the same space, let alone with a child, no matter how happy he is. And if we have any visitors (very rare these days and only after they’ve quarantined), our house seems to contract even further, even though I love having people we’re close to around, especially in these times, which makes me feel conflicted and guilty and ungrateful.
I wish I had a solution for this space issue, but I really don’t. I share all of this because I know we’re not alone in feeling too much togetherness, too few moments to ourselves, too little control about… everything. After six-plus months of this, I’ve only come up with a few workarounds that keep me feeling like I’m hanging on by more than a thread. Things like…taking an extra five minutes when I say I have to use the bathroom, which I mostly use to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling. Or making sure that, if nothing else, I at least do a few squats and pushups a day to get my blood pumping. Or not feeling as bad if I just want to lie down for an hour after putting our son to bed, because I want our fluffy comforter all to myself for a bit. Because the things that worked before – getting out of the house to go to the gym or get coffee, taking the occasional day off from work while my son was at daycare, meeting up with friends for a glass of wine – are no longer options, so I have to make do with what’s available to me now.
During this pandemic I have learned so much about what I need to maintain my mental health, my relationships, my productivity. Mostly because I haven’t had as much of it as I require to really thrive.
I need space.
To be my whole self.
For now, I’ll keep finding little ways to make space, but here’s hoping 2021 is a little more wide open. How are you carving out space and time for yourself right now? Is it working?
The cliche thing to do here would be 35 things I’ve learned about myself by 35, right? But let’s be honest – no one wants to read through a list of 35 things unless it’s a “35 Ways You Know You’re a Millennial” on Buzzfeed (dunkaroos, dial-up, and Delia’s). Plus, it would probably get a little repetitive. So here is a non-exhaustive list of things I have come to know about myself at the age of 35 (and some change)
1. I am not funny
Sure, I say a funny thing or two occasionally. I have brief flashes of wittiness. And I can be very goofy and downright weird, which might elicit a laugh here or there (however uncomfortable). But I’m not generally funny, and I am OK with that. I don’t think that not being funny makes me any less intelligent or fun to be around – you just won’t bust a gut laughing when we hang out. I think timing and the ability to not completely overthink things are key to being funny, and I don’t have either, at least never at the same time. So you can be the funny one, entertaining the group. I’ll just be over here having unnecessarily serious conversations with one person at a time.
2. I like flexibility but need routine
Having done a little freelance work in the past, and now trying to start that back up, I will say that I love not having a full day of meetings and immediate client needs. I really enjoy being able to do things when the mood strikes or when they make sense to me. Working out at 2pm? Sure! My son is napping. Am I struggling with the motivation to write in the afternoon? No problem, I’ll just shift my day around a bit and write before bed when I’m feeling really inspired.
However, I still need a routine, and by this I mean, I still need to know I am going to do something every day or a set number of times per week in order to keep up any sort of momentum. When I was on maternity leave last year, I started a few simple habits in order to give my days some sort of structure. I told myself that all I had to do was do 10 squats, 10 pushups, and write a half-page in my journal every single day. In total, these habits probably took 10 minutes out of my day, but they made me feel like I had accomplished something. But I found that if I missed more than a day, I was totally thrown and would feel a little less in control. When I got back on track, I was much calmer, thanks to the consistency, no matter when I did those things during the day. (Side note: I also tracked these habits, and still do, thanks to my friend Rachel’s book “Dot Journaling—A Practical Guide: How to Start and Keep the Planner, To-Do List, and Diary That’ll Actually Help You Get Your Life Together. Highly recommend.)
3. I’m an introvert
In college, I would have told you that I was tooootally an extrovert. I loved going out and meeting new people, I lived in a house with 72 other women, and was in no less than four extracurriculars at a time. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that this is not the case and that I need downtime by myself. Even when we have guests whom we love staying with us, I need a little time to sit by myself with a book or go for a walk alone. And I do love meeting new people and having conversations, but it’s usually one-on-one, and rarely two days in a row.
For a while, I thought that perhaps my personality had changed since college and high school, but looking back, I think the early 2000s were just an era of extroversion – being a loud party girl was a sought after “personality,” so that’s what I tried to claim as my own. But in all honesty, while I did love parties and making new friends, I tended to gravitate toward one or two people and hang with them for most of the night. And if my ode to sitting alone in coffee shops didn’t make it clear, I’ll say this: I really, truly hated studying in groups, whether it was at the library or in a cafe. Even when friends would stop by to say hello at one of my regular study haunts, I felt like my private space – my sanctuary! – was being invaded. How did I miss this very obvious aspect of my personality?
4. I will likely never be early
Look, this isn’t one I’m super proud of, but I’m also not terribly ashamed either. I used to be VERY late to everything, and I came from a family of folks who were chronically late. It was never malicious or an intentional disregard for others’ time; rather it was a very skewed sense of time borne out of optimism. For most of my life, I always thought things would take me wayyy less time than they actually did, and that I could get far more done in an hour than I really could. So then, I would be racing toward the predetermined hour, either just getting out of the shower or frantically attempting to finish the time-intensive project I had started.
Over time, I’ve gotten a lot better about this. Having lived in two large cities where I relied on public transit, I’ve learned that all travel needs a buffer. And as the years have gone by, I’ve increased those buffers, both on the travel and getting ready side. Whereas before, I would leave exactly 25 minutes before I needed to be there because that’s what Google Maps said, these days I give myself at least 30 extra minutes in order to account for getting lost, Metro mishaps, and parking snafus. (I would also be remiss if I didn’t give my husband, a very punctual person, a little bit of credit here, but I really was working on this on my own before we met and he kind of sped up the process.) I probably will never be the person who gets places 10 or 15 minutes early, but now I am generally on time for most things I attend.
5. I will never be satisfied
This is not a Hamilton thing, nor a commentary on how driven I am. Really, it’s just understanding that I will always want for something. A little more time to perfect something I’ve written. Another piece of cake. A chance to go back in time and do more traveling, taking advantage of the fact that in my 20s, I had friends who briefly lived abroad and a back that could handle broken down pull-out couch mattresses.
But me never being satisfied doesn’t mean I can’t be happy with the life I have. It just means I have to be OK with sending things I’ve created out into the world before I’m 100% ready, accept that most times one dessert is plenty, and acknowledge that traveling in your 30s when you have a little more disposable income and/or work pays for it is way better anyway (helloooo, business class seat to Madrid for a medical meeting).
So some stuff I wish I had learned sooner, and some things that I’m continuing to learn about myself. I’m pretty happy with my level of self-awareness these days, but I know there’s no end to the learning about oneself. Maybe in five years, I’ll have a list of 40?