Working on "while," and reading the manual

One word I've noticed myself overusing recently is "while."

The way I use it in my head it means, "during the time that; at the same time as," but ironically, it also means "a period of time" (implying taking longer than a few seconds) and "to pass time in a leisurely manner." The way I use it is not leisurely.

I've been a multi-tasker for a real long time now, but recently I've been evaluating my impulses to do more than one thing at a time.

"While"

For example, I often come home from the gym hot, sweaty, and hungry, so I start dinner by chopping veggies and seasoning things and get a pan or two going. Then I turn the burners to Low and run upstairs for a quick shower. I was a little nervous the first time I did this (potential to burn!), but after it was uneventful and I've tried it a few more times, I've gotten more confident. (Sure, statistically it's more likely to burn, I'm sure, but I don't often have a problem burning things when I'm a few feet away, either, so... #stilllearningtocook.)

This practice (cooking dinner while showering) saves me some time, and gets me clean and eating a delicious dinner earlier than otherwise. But I think it has some negative effects, too. It's not stressful, exactly, but moving from one thing to the next back and forth does keep me on edge a little. (And after understanding the science behind eating in a calm state from husband's Mindful Eating Challenge, I'm especially aware of that feeling before eating.)

Even over the weekend (supposed to be relaxed! Weekend!), I did the ol', "I'll unload the dishwasher while my eggs cook in the frying pan," of course not paying enough attention to the eggs, resulting in overcooked eggs, which made my grumpy.

I do it before bed, too. "I'll just brush my teeth while I pick out my clothes for tomorrow." (Likely result: toothpaste down my chin, dropping folded pants on the floor.)
Instead of enjoying my space, I might be running from one thing to the next while the stove is on. (Photo by Nakalan.)

These examples of "multi-tasking" (although I've heard there's no such thing, just switching quickly back and forth between thoughts/tasks) are probably not helping me out in the long run, really. On the one hand, practical! Cook dinner while showering. On the other hand, stress-inducing! Counter-productive to good lifestyle choices like making myself delicious dinner from scratch.

But brushing my teeth while walking around my room in the half-dark? Just dumb. Texting while driving? We KNOW that one's dumb. The risk? Not worth it.

In almost all cases, my urge to multitask comes from my desire to get more done in a short amount of time. A desire for efficiency, lack of waste (of time). So if I'm skimping on the task and doing it poorly (or needing to do it again, like after burning dinner or only brushing one side of my teeth), I'm not saving any time at all. Realizing this, I thought back to one of the biggest take-aways I had from Happier at Home when I read it years ago now (follow-up to The Happiness Project, which I also really appreciated).

Read the manual

One goal in the book that really stuck with me was, "Read the manual" - take the time that you need to prepare for a task, and it will go more smoothly, be less frustrating, and probably take less time (at least in the long run, if not also in the short run). 

So, I went back to my marked-up, sticky tab-bookmarked copy of it and re-read the section. "Read the manual" in Happier at Home is one of the author's goals for the month when she focuses on Possessions and her relationship with them. The example is the household appliance that sits on the counter, unused because it's too complicated to figure out until you read the manual. I was never a manual-reader myself (with new toys, new electronics, whatever it was) but I've taken this goal to a more figurative place. From the book:

"'Read the manual' was helpful on a metaphorical level, as well, to caution me to make necessary preparations and not to expect instant mastery. Did I have the tools I needed, and did I know how to use them? Was I actually looking for the pull tab or the 'tear here' mark that would allow me to open a package easily instead of struggling needlessly? Was I giving myself time to study and learn? Too often I skimped on preparation time...'Read the manual' reminded me to take time to prepare."Happier at Home

Yep, I totally know those feelings. When I think about it, it seems totally silly to rush through something rather than taking the steps I know I need to take.

That doesn't mean I always do it, though.

So, I'm making a goal for myself for the next while. I don't know that doing something "while" I do something else is always a bad thing, but I want to give myself a warning when I notice it cross my thoughts. I want to think through the steps that I know are required, and remind myself that if I do them, the task will be easier and more successful.

I imagine you know what I mean! I love thinking of "Read the manual" as a reminder to prepare - it might help you, too!

9 comments

  1. Haha, I do actually usually read the instructions and look for the easy way to open packaging. But I'm not always doing that in the metaphorical sense. A practical tip from me would be to look for ovenbake recipes. Then there's a bit of hands-free time built right in and you can take a shower without worrying.

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  2. This is a great reminder to be more thoughtful in the little tasks that fill the day. I personally love multitasking while brushing my teeth (my husband thinks it's bizarre but I'll never give it up!), but I'm also guilty of trying to rush into a project but getting frustrated when I don't have everything I need. I'll try to remember to "read the manual" next time.

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  3. Preparing for the task is something I've never been good at but I am trying to apply it with photography and cooking... hopefully I will improve on that concept.

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  4. Great comment, Susan. I loved what you said. I think it's great to enjoy the now (wherever you are and whoever your with) and not worry about what is next.

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  5. Great article! Have you read the book Getting Things Done? In the book, David Allen stresses the importance of breaking down your tasks into mini action items, which ties in well with preparing for a task.


    I also read this yesterday and thought of you - http://www.fastcompany.com/3034157/the-future-of-work/how-single-tasking-boosts-your-productivity


    There's certain things I love to multi-task (listening to educational podcasts while running), but others I love to do one at a time so I can be thoughtful in my approach. I love to cook, so every night I will only focus on cooking dinner and nothing else.... For me, cooking is therapeutic, so multi-tasking while cooking is out of the question!

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  6. I'm definitely a multi-tasker...and I think it ends up costing me more time in the long run! I'm definitely going to be more aware of my "whiles" too!

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  7. Absolutely. A good reminder! I need to work on that!

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  8. Good point!! I'll have to do that once the weather cools down and I can use the oven!

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