This morning my daughter was tasked with making her lunch to take to school. Normally I help with this, but today I was in a hurry, needing to get ready for an appointment. I put all of the items she would need on the counter and instructed her on what to do: get a tortilla, put in a little of this and a little of that, warm the wrap, roll it and then cut it in half and put it in the container. Easy. Ten minutes later I call down to her and tell her it’s time to get dressed and brush her teeth because we only have a matter of minutes before we need to leave for school, to which she replied, “But I’m not finished rolling the burrito.”
“How long does it take to roll a burrito,” I wondered? Apparently, if it’s my daughter, it takes at least ten minutes. And before you scoff at that, know that there is a perfectly good and logical explanation – she was watching a YouTube video on my iPhone about how to make a rainbow cake while she was constructing the burrito. It all makes perfect sense now.
We, being the multitasking, do-it-all, go-getters that we are, think we can do more than one thing at a time. And yes, we can – but not very well. In fact, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that our brains can only focus on one or two things at a time. Other studies show that multitasking actually causes stress. The more we do (or try to do) simultaneously, the more stressed out we become. The more stressed we are, the harder it is to do what needs to be done, and we start to struggle. The more we struggle, the quicker we deplete our energy and start to sink – drowning imminent. Not a pretty picture, is it?
It seems counterintuitive but the reality is that when we do less, we accomplish more. This goes against our conditioning that the more we do, the bigger the payoff. According to Newton’s third law of motion, for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction. According to Gary Zukav, in his book Seat of the Soul, this means: “you receive from the world what you give to the world.” If you are putting all your frenetic, fractured attention out there, that’s what you get in return: a lot of undone projects, a mess of tangled ideas with no evident outcomes, an unwrapped burrito, and a half-watched YouTube video. Where is the satisfaction in that? It’s much more effective to put your full attention on what needs to be done right here and right now. The rest can wait in line.
For many of us, doing one thing at a time is a major shift in how we operate. It’s a habit that is literally ingrained in our brain. Fortunately, meditation is a practice that trains your brain to focus on one thing at a time. When we practice meditation every day, the landscape of our brain physically changes; the part of the brain that controls attention and focus grows larger. The part that triggers stress and anxiety grows smaller. Meditation calms our nervous system and teaches our attention how to stay in the present moment where our life is happening and where we can make good choices.
This morning I jumped in and saved the day with my mad lunch-packing skills, and we were out the door in the nick of time. Luckily for my daughter, she has her mom to snap her attention into focus when necessary. Otherwise she’d be nourished only by the lesson she learned from this morning’s multitasking failure: rainbow cakes on YouTube don’t fill up the tummies of fifth graders.
This morning I was driving my daughter to school and she asked, “Mom, am I a perfectionist?”
My daughter likes to do things well. She also likes to win.
The doing things well part she gets from me and the winning part she gets from her dad. This morning she was watching Sports Center before we left for school. She is nine years old.
I answered my daughter that yes, sometimes she is a perfectionist. This conversation has been going on for years. When she started school it became painfully obvious. Each mark or grade that wasn’t a perfect score resulted in tears and upset. She is one year ahead of other kids her age and scores in the top percentile on national assessment tests. She’s in a talented and gifted program and goes above and beyond the call of elementary school duty. She is, indeed, exceptional. But she is not perfect.
I reminded her again that there is no such thing as perfect; as long as we are doing our best, it’s always good enough. She either rolled her eyes or shrugged her shoulders, I’m not sure which. When I looked over to gauge her state of being, she looked unconvinced.
This perfection thing perturbs me. I know it very well. It’s taken a long stretch of my life to lay this burden down — I still find myself picking it back up once and a while. Yesterday I was at a cancer support center giving a talk about meditation to cancer patients and their family members and caregivers. The content of the talk was high level, meant to clear up misconceptions about meditation and share the amazing benefits of the practice. It is content that I know a lot about, am passionate about, and love talking about.
This time, however, I was feeling a bit tired from just returning from a trip to L.A. and hadn’t given my presentation much of a go-through beforehand. I was nervous and felt a little disconnected from my self; not exactly sure what I was going to say. I gave the talk and felt the entire thing was, if I were to grade it, a B-minus – and that was being generous. It bothered me deeply that I hadn’t been as “on-fire” as I wanted to be and I felt like I let the group down.
Keeping a smile on my face and composure in place, I invited anyone with a desire to learn to receive a registration form for the upcoming meditation class. A few people approached and then a few more. Soon, my stack of forms was gone and I still had people wanting to sign up. I was happy to know my next class would be full but the shocking part was the comments people left me with.
They were so positive and appreciative – they told me they were fascinated by what they heard and that they loved the presentation and were so excited to learn to meditate. A nurse invited me to speak to her diabetes support group. A young woman asked me if I could teach her young son with ADHD, another wrote a heartfelt thank you note on the bottom of her registration form.
I don’t know what I said that rang their bells. I do know that I showed up with a pure intention and did the best I could. Do I feel I could have presented better? Yes – on a different day. Yesterday – I was perfect enough.