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Paying Attention


In the last couple of weeks, I’ve lost at least three things. I eventually recovered them all, but the fact that I couldn’t remember where I put them was alarming. My fear is not that my brain is slipping, though that is not entirely out of the question. What I know when I start misplacing things is that I’m again fooling myself into believing that I am an adept multi-tasker. Even a slight glance back into the last month reminds me that I’ve spent days enmeshing phone conversations, with organizing paperwork, putting away groceries, feeding the dogs, and even corresponding with someone via email. The fact that anything in my life is in order surprises me.

I want to blame my penchant for multi-tasking on having spent more than 30 years in the workplace. Most of us learned early on that doing what was right in front of us at work was not enough. We were also supposed to be planning the next step and completing the eight tasks our superiors and co-workers just casually added in along the way. Being completely overworked at all times is considered normal for the majority of people I know who toil out in the world. The fact that it is not actually possible to do all of what is expected of us never seems to matter. We just add on, as if it is normal. I spent many an hour at work simultaneously talking on the phone, reading emails and writing responses. I can only imagine the quality of those communications.

I am so out of practice at being in the moment and focusing on what I’m doing that it’s like commanding a hyperactive toddler to sit still.

But even with my ample experience attempting to do many things at once, I honestly believe I came to work in the first place with that kind of personality. I’m not sure if it’s as simple as being so insecure that I think I need to be doing eight things at once to feel okay about myself, or if my natural anxiety just pushes me to keep moving no matter what. Add to the mix the fact that people have often complimented me for being super organized and efficient and you have a person who thinks she can brush her teeth, send a text and read a book all at once.

So, at some point during the day that I lost a piece of paper with notes I really needed, I first did what I always do when I misplace something. I railed loudly at the fact that my life has gotten out of control. In case you're wondering, this is not an effective problem-solving tool in any way at all. It annoys my partner, it scares the dogs, and it makes me feel even more helpless. My next step is usually to swear that I will never multi-task again, an equally fruitless approach. But, as I ran through these predictable steps, I realized that trying to do several things at once is really a symptom of another problem—that I probably have a few too many things going on and that it would be good to stop and reflect and reorder more often. This is a completely different method than my normal strategy, which is to amp things up and charge forward, an effort that usually results in frustration and exhaustion.

All of this has made me realize how little real attention I devote to what is going on most of the time. I know that if I stopped and thought consciously about the value of talking on the phone and simultaneously writing an email, I would, no doubt, limit my focus to one. This paying attention thing is a killer, though, if you’re like me. I understand its importance, but I am so out of practice at being in the moment and focusing on what I’m doing that it’s like commanding a hyperactive toddler to sit still.

Still, since this whole time of my life seems to be about trying new approaches, I’m thinking it might be a good time to pay closer attention to what I’m doing while I’m doing it. I get it that planning to pay attention is a bit counterintuitive, but being mindful as often as I can remember to be has to be a good thing. I’m thinking I’ll notice a few more of the small moments that I’m usually racing past, and hopefully I'll really hear something that someone is trying to tell me. When I think of the rush of time and days, it makes me want to slow them down anyway, to feel the air, the warmth of a hug, the lick of a dog on my hand. Notice, pay attention, be here.

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