I started waiting tables when I was 11. I worked in a family owned restaurant in a town of 150 people in the Sierras. By the time I was 15 I had my official working permit and I could work at the fine dining restaurant, a step up in responsibility and tips.
I remember my best friend’s dad, my boss, taught me the art of multitasking. He taught me that every time I was “on the floor” to watch for tables that needed clearing, a family looking for water, a check that needed to be delivered. No trip in or out of the kitchen was without multitasking. Amazingly, this was probably the first step toward becoming a family doctor though I never would have guessed.
Multitasking has dominated my experience as a young person and now as a mom and physician it is no different. I am not alone. It is a skill and a distraction from what is. When it comes to mindfulness, unlearning this skill is a challenge.
Multitasking is an essential part of becoming a physician. I remember being on call, actively managing more than 30 patients with various acute health, some of whom were actively dying. You would get called about medication changes, delirious patients, unstable vitals. Then a new patient would be admitted from the emergency room, next on your list of thing to do. Then labor and delivery calls and its time to catch a baby, the emergency room admission got basic orders, nurses were to get started but a fill history now had to wait. A baby was born. Sometimes a life was saved, sometimes it was time for a life to end. All in a 28 hour shift.
Being a mom challenges my multitasking ability every day. There are toys to pick up, laundry to do and chores are never ending. But my children need more than that. They need a mom to listen and play. To read and explore. All the while the tasks must get done too.
As a mom and a doctor, the multitasking can become unending. I am a perfectionist and like many characteristics we see in ourselves, this is a good thing in many situations even if challenging in others.
When I am doing a circumcision with a medical student or a resident, I teach them my perfectionism because it is a time and place where this is adaptive and important. When it comes my 2 and a 4 year old, perfectionism about cleaning the floor only makes us all crazy and distracts from the importance of being together at this precious time in their lives.
I am in tune with my body and mind and notice small changes easily. When I was pregnant my brain didn’t multitask as well. As a physician I know that as we get older, our brains don’t multi-task as well. We might think of this as a bad thing, but really, there is an art to single tasking.
As I have learned mindfulness, the practice of consciously single tasking in yoga or meditation or parenting has been a welcome challenge. As we bring our busy minds to one focus, it is easy to see the monkey mind dancing around a variety of thoughts. As in meditation, you can label these thoughts and gently bring your mind back to the present. Like training a puppy, over and over reminding yourself to come back to the present.
In the day and age of email, social media, internet and texting it is easy to feel that we are always in the middle of something, but never really here. It’s a practice, single tasking, and perhaps an ever more important one as our lives speed up and our brains slow down.
To practice, put your phone or computer to bed at 8 PM for a week. You’ll sleep better and your brain will thank you. (science says so).
The great thing about direct primary care is that I can reserve a whole hour for patients as I get to know them. I can actually focus on the history that you bring to the table. We can make a good plan together. We can dive deeper as we weave the web of the doctor and patient relationship.
I hope that my own practice of single tasking will be apparent the next time we meet. As a doctor and a mom part of me might always be multitasking. But switching between the two modes and being present in the one you are in while you are there—that is the art. Come in for a visit if you haven’t already. Isn’t it time for a little focus on you?
More on multitasking here: