About a month ago, I was watching one of my favorite television cooking shows, and I saw a respected chef preparing his mis en place (the French term for prepared peeled and sliced ingredients) using a Mandoline (the French-created utensil for quickly slicing and cutting vegetables). Please keep reading– this is not a fancy French lesson.
The Mandoline has always looked to me like a ‘made-for-TV’ item that 1970’s housewives used to impress their Tupperware party guests. So, imagine my surprise seeing this established chef using one on his show. Before the segment cut to commercial, I had grabbed my iPhone, browsed the various models, and chosen my free-two day shipping from my Amazon Prime account. Now, I waited.
The Mandoline arrived, and I immediately inspected it, but it sat mostly untouched in the box for almost 30 days. Until yesterday.
Now, in full disclosure, I must admit that I regularly attempt to ultimate-task. I say ‘attempt’ because it is my general understanding that multi-tasking is impossible: One thing always wins. One thing gets more focus than the other. Also, in full disclosure, I should tell you I am writing this very blog post from a local bookstore while sipping cold brew coffee and listening to the early Beulah recordings of Sir Noel Coward. I know- I am a constant contradiction.
Yesterday, though, I was scheduled to be in New York City. The impending weather report led me to cancel my flight and reschedule my Friday meetings as video conferences instead. After our morning hours of meetings, I decided I would make a quick run to the grocery and gather ingredients to surprise the family with a homemade chicken soup for dinner. I could easily make it back to the house before the afternoon conference began.
When I returned to the house, I assembled my ingredients and utensils, including my new Mandoline. It was the perfect way to get two things done at once: soup and conference call. I would be nearly finished with my prep before the call would begin, and I would easily stand and stir when needed. With my earbuds securely in place, they would have (nearly) my full attention.
As I started on the call, I only had to finish slicing the carrots. Thus far, the Mandoline was a dream. I sliced 2 lbs of celery, two large onions and was nearly through my second pound of carrots when– it happened.
The Mandoline has an exposed blade, with an adjustable base which determines desired thickness. More blade for thicker slices, less blade for thinner pieces. Easy enough. One tends to move quickly when using a Mandoline, because it is just so simple to do. And, the more force you use, the easier the carrots slice. The more engaged you are on a conference call, the more quickly one whizzes through to the nub of a carrot… straight through to the thumb. My thumb.
Let me say, nothing interrupts progress (on the call, or the soup, for that matter) as quickly as a razor-sharp, Japanese-made, French-inspired blade to the first digit of the (previously) confident home chef and marketing executive.
Why, why, why did I think this was a good idea? Why couldn’t I wait twenty minutes until the call was over? Why did I feel that multi-tasking was the right plan? I didn’t. I didn’t think about it at all, and the Mandoline won.
I had shifted focus to the other thing. The call. Naturally. I had allowed the carrot slicing to become out of focus. The slicing action had become so mechanic, so easily repeatable, I didn’t have to think about it. Or did I?
To Task, or to Multi-Task? That is the Question.
I am well aware that there entire books written about the benefits of multi-tasking, and the skills to be achieved at keeping multiple channels of productivity at work at once. Yes, I have seen these, I’ve even read some of them. I’ve learned the terms switchtasking and background tasking, and I might even occasionally understand the difference.
The respected Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, claims that it is beyond our brain’s capacity to multitask. He challenges the popular assumption even, claiming the quality of output falls when one attempts to multitask.
“You’re not actually doing both activities at the same time, in fact, you’re now diverting your attention from one part of your brain to another part of your brain. That takes time, that takes resources, that takes brain cells.” (Your Brain on Multitasking, CNN, Mon., Aug 1, 2016)
It is a lesson I learn time and again. Or, perhaps I should say, it is a lesson I am reminded of time and again. I am not sure I have learned it at all. I continue to grab my iPhone at red lights while driving. I check emails during dinner or while watching television. And, I slice vegetables while on conference calls.
I prefer to be singularly focused. I am thrilled when I can shut my office door and begin writing or creating art for a project. I love when I have nothing else to do but prepare a meal for the family. But alas, productivity and goals and interruptions often win. Or in my case– productivity and the Mandoline.
I failed to mention the (now) hilarious and ironic scene that took place immediately after sending a portion of my thumb into the veggie bowl. “Umm, guys– I think I am going to need to, er, umm, ohhhh boy. I’m gonna have to bounce off the call.”
Blood was everywhere, my arm now above my head, trying to race to bathroom, only to find the gauze box empty. In the vanity drawer, there were a handful of bandages, all individually wrapped, and some cotton balls. “You alright, George?” asked our partner, Brian. “Yeah, well– er, not really.” And then the members of the conference all proceeded to give me instructions, “Keep it above your head, You’ll need a tourniquet, I’ll bet you’ll need stitches.”
I endeavored to unwrap a plastic bandage with my left hand and my teeth, to little success, actually gagging and choking at one point on a small piece of wrapper. Every time I instinctually lower my right hand to aid in the mess, blood would spew everywhere. All the while, still on the conference call. The effort to disconnect from the call would require removing my iPhone from my pocket, and using my right thumb to unlock the screen. This was becoming ridiculous. Would my thumbprint even work anymore? Now I was distracted by this horrible predicament- what if I can’t unlock my phone? What then?
Everything was, of course– just fine. There’s a code for the phone. There’s talk-to-text. And there’s masking tape and cotton balls. I called my wife to request she stop and pick up some gauze and bandages, and told her I’d manage until she got home.
When my wife and son got home, we re-bandaged my silly wound, cleaned up the trail of blood from kitchen to bathroom, and sat down to enjoy my piping hot soup. And checked our iPhones. And watched Wheel of Fortune. Oh well.