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Why I'm Rethinking Multitasking

  • Dr. Claire McCarthy
  • 10/24/2013 12:00:00 AM
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Portrait of Claire McCarthyWe got a puppy a couple of weeks ago, and since then I’ve been getting less done.

This might not be such a bad thing.

I recently read a blog written by a Connecticut mom about how she left her 4-year-old daughter unattended in the bathtub when she heard an email chime on her iPad—only to come back a couple of minutes later to find her asleep, slumping down, close to slipping underwater. “I almost killed my daughter,” she wrote.

My first thought: there but for the grace of God go I.

People often ask me how I juggle parenting, doctoring and writing. My standard and very true response is, quite simply: I take multitasking where it shouldn’t go. I don’t text and drive or leave kids unattended in the bathtub, but if I’m going to be fully honest, there have been times when I have been plain old lucky, because I’ve been distracted enough to be unsafe.

“Distracted Living” is what Jennifer Meer called the post, and that’s what we are increasingly living: distracted lives. 

The other day, my 12-year-old told me that one of the other mothers in the swim practice carpool doesn’t allow any cell phone use in the car. Not just by the driver, but by anyone. “You should do that, Mom,” she said.

I thought, why does Tash care if I check emails while my husband drives? But really, I know why she cares. Tash is so capable and independent that she, more than anyone else in our family, gets lost in the shuffle of multitasking: she can take care of herself, so she comes off the to-do list. It bugs her. She literally grabs onto me sometimes, as if to say: Pay attention to me.

Because my attention is in a million places. I’m talking to patients, answering texts and emails, writing blogs, doing laundry, figuring out the logistics of a family of seven, picking up the house, paying bills…the to-do list is monumental. And the fact that technology gives us all sorts of cool ways to be more efficient makes it seem like we should keep doing more.

But there are downsides to doing more. Besides the fact that it wears us out, it’s not like we do things better when we do more. When we are distracted, it shows—and can have consequences, big and small

You can’t be distracted with a puppy. At least not with our puppy—I’m a cat person, so I’m new to this puppy stuff. Tucker (that’s his name) doesn’t necessarily come when called (he’s still learning his name, let alone the concept of coming when he’s called) and eats everything. Everything.  Like rocks, or his own poop (cats don’t do that, just saying). When we take him out, which we have to do really often (to burn off energy and save the carpet), it requires full attention.

So when I take him out, I don’t look at my phone or otherwise multitask. And here’s the really magical part: when I go out with him, my children want to come too. We’ve had some really wonderful times together where all we were concentrating on was Tucker, and each other. It has felt remarkably right, in a way that has left me both happy and sheepish.

“Last week was my wake up call,” wrote Meer. “I will get less done.”

It’s really hard for me to think about getting less done. I am not great at saying no, and there are so many exciting possibilities and opportunities out there.  Plus, I want to help wherever I can; I’m a strong believer in the adage that if you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

But sometimes doing more creates problems—and doing less solves some.

Thanks to Tucker, I get to practice doing less. I’m not sure how it will go; deciding what not to do is going to be tough. But already, I’m seeing the upsides—and so are my children. 

Especially Tash.

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