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A Run-Away-Train Lesson on Multitasking

Professor Samar Ahmed

By Professor Samar Ahmed

Professor Ahmed is an MD, JMHPE, FAIMER Fellow and faculty. She is the Director at Ain Shams Middle East North Africa FAIMER Regional Institute for Health Professions Education (menafri.faimefri.org).

I lived my life functioning as one of the best ever multitaskers in the world. I brag about it, talk about it and even use it as a cheeky gesture when I want to pull someone’s strings. It was not until this past week that I realized how I have wronged myself and been at fault my whole life.

Early every year I make a projection into my yearly plan and highlight the deadlines, travel, commitments and every detail that is fixed and not subject to delay or extension. I have a general mind map that looks like a line with red areas that my brain generates around time zones. This line is not on a google calendar or my phone calendar, it is in my head. So in general my subconscious will be aching with feelings about a certain time of the year that sometimes have no clear justification to me. Sentences like “I know I cannot do the first week of September but I do not exactly know why” are the normal daily interaction from my side. I believe that I can do it all and capture the essence of everything without ever having to say no.

A “NO” for me is an occurrence related only to time line overlap of activities. So I could accept a training assignment in Dubai that is designed for 4 days but then discover that I was invited to do a strategy meeting in USA from the fourth day onwards. This was no reason to pass on any of the two assignments but actually it was an invitation to cram the four-day assignment into three then travel over night from Dubai to USA to reach my destination 30 minutes before the executive meeting and manage to participate straight after the opening ceremony. I would look at people with sarcasm when they told me that I should learn to say NO. All until this week.

For the first time in my academic career I felt the trauma I had been putting myself through all my life. This year one of the time zones that signaled a red flag was July. From the beginning of the year I would feel butterflies in my stomach when I heard the name of the month. If you would have asked I would as usual say I do not know why but my subconscious was howling with terror and dreaded the very name of the month as if a premonition of a destructive experience.

Figure 1 It all started manifesting one week before July. A series of incompetencies that indicated a blurry perception of what was required of me. I knew my dates were approaching but for the first time I started double booking myself to deliverables and events. I found myself shifting my calendar for a whole week. People would remind me that I will be on a plane during that time. I would look at them in despair and question them in denial that my map was valid and i am still navigating based on its instructions and raised colored flags. It obviously was not the best available option. Information started blurring and details started drifting into unknowns.

With every unknown the pressure level rose. With every surprise, good or bad, my cortisol level shot up and all of a sudden my extrasystoles significantly multiplied from 1 per minute to one every three beats. With a fatigued cardiac muscle I started receiving a new gift of dropped beats that came after each extrasystole accompanied with loss of breath and chest pain. And all of a sudden I was experiencing a sense of near death and panic.

With chest pain, everything else disappears, the meeting I was late for, the ticket that had my name spelled incorrectly, the transit visa issue that I discovered by coincidence while boarding….. everything started to mean absolutely nothing. The sense of loss for not knowing the name of the hotel i was booked for disappeared in relation to the sense of loss associated with oxygen not flowing through my lungs.

Then a question struck me, Why am i here? Remembering the valuable question that we learned in stakeholder mapping and that we later started teaching in our version of the FAIMER fellowship; Whats in it for me?, I realized how my IQ had failed me miserably. For months I have been on auto-pilot with a setting on “yes” that never delivered itself to manual decision making as long as the time line accepted the booking.

When you are on auto-pilot many of the questions of intuition are not raised like “why” and “what for” and “what’s in it for me” and you find yourself acknowledging automated decisions that do not factorize your health or mental capacity and only base the go or no go on the vacancy on the time line.

Figure 2 Very important values are at risk and become treated like commodity including perception of everything around and interpretation of inputs to be able to develop a proper vision and a proper inference of the happenings that surround you daily. This is a protective effect against sudden adrenaline and cortisol surges that end up in a terrible anger lash. It is a simple capacity lost in a brain fogged with over work and depleted neurotransmitters.

Another function of the frontal cortex is depleted in the everlasting “run-away-train” adventure and this is the capacity to enjoy the achievements and celebrate accomplishments. This capacity is the daily capacity that keeps you going from day to day. The daily advantage you give yourself for being a high achiever and the pat on the shoulder you are accustomed to receive just before you surrender to the dark pitch you fall into when your head touches the pillow.

Figure 3The vicious circle starts with the loss of proper judgement and the losses that are attributed to it. All strategic decisions start suffering and objectives start to blur. The lack of clear objectives is a determinant of failed execution and a pile of wasted time. So as once stated “busy is the new stupid”. All of a sudden all the stupidity in the environment around you becomes a normal occurrence and you unite with every stupid thought that crosses your mind and one morning you wake up with a depressed cortical function and a tethered IQ that gives you a step back to stand in line with all the rest of the so called humans you had always crucified as in intelligent.

Figure 4 For years my outcome was amazing, a training room lit up when i held the microphone, a passage i write would end up looking like a tango and I would demonstrate capacity to produce in style. Unfortunately to compliment the new “I am so stupid” brand I had achieved for myself, and as a direct relation to the inability to plan and reflect on plans, i found myself in the training room that was my once-up-on-a-time den with my hand shivering around the microphone and an incoherence and a Broca’s aphasia where words seamed like floating butterflies in a slowed down animation movie. With this incident came a revelation that creativity was also a chemical process that can be depleted and that anything that is not replenished actually runs out!!

A word of advice for my brothers and sisters out there who call themselves multitaskers and high achievers

Always keep your appointments in a WRITTEN calendar because just writing down the activity relieves a great part of the stress

Make sure that you have allocated time to plan for your activities in your calendar

Make sure you have allocated time to rest and touch base and reflect and stop assuming you are a robot

With every assigned task that you agree to take on ask yourself a set of questions:

Is it optional?

What is the added value will this task add to me or my project?

What will my business or me lose if this task is not accomplished?

Why do I REALLY want to take this task on?

Can I delegate it?

If not why?

If it is because you don’t trust the employees to do it, then ask yourself ( What stakeholder quadrant are they in? Are they really incompetent or are you micromanaging?)

If they are really incompetent ask your self (Is this the proper time to start exposing and training them?)

Always check in with yourself and ask yourself how you are doing… wait for an answer and make sure it does not come across as a lie.

Add to your schedule a personal time where you focus on your body, health looks and whatever makes your endorphins dance.

Make sure you look in the mirror every day and that you recognize the reflection in the mirror

Check in with your feelings every morning and make sure you have no slight degree of self pity and if you do then it is a red light that your plans do not include you

Multitasking is like juggling in a circus, its meant for clowns definitely not for lion master. When taming the lion the trainer is present and totally involved with the task at hand…. do not ever try taming a lion while juggling…

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