Keep Calm and Don’t Multi-Task

My Trip to Asda

Have you ever been waiting for the minimum-wage earning, high school student at the window of the fast food place to make your change while he or she is taking the order of someone behind you? And you just know the employee is going to get it wrong?

This is because our brains don’t actually multitask, according to the current research. They’re not built to. It’s no wonder is when the kid at the drive-thru makes a mistake. (The wonder is when he or she gets it right!)

Yesterday, VTH (that’s “Venerable The Husband”) and I did some grocery shopping. We’re in London for the summer and needed to stock up the flat. None of the grocery store chains here are familiar to us, so we simply went to the nearest one. While the checker was ringing up the person in front of us, a man came up to the empty check-stand behind her and started helping himself to the plastic bags. The plastic bags that the store charges 8 pence each for.

The checker asked him, politely at first, what he was doing. He went on about how the bags should be free. Honestly, he wasn’t making much sense. She shoo’ed him away and went back to what she was doing.

Then it was our turn. The man comes back, this time in front of her at yet another register. Now she’s yelling at him. He’s not stopping. So she’s shouting for the manager. “Hamet! HAMET!” All the while continuing to scan my groceries.

I pay with my debit card in the little machine. “HAMET!” she’s screaming. She’s pressing buttons on her register. She has Hamet’s attention now, and is yelling at him about the man stealing the 8 pence bags. (At the current rate of exchange, that’s 10.8 cents US per bag,) I finish my transaction and wait on the checker.

VTH says, “Hit okay.”

“I already hit okay,” I say. “I’m waiting for her.”

The checker hears me and presses a button. Hamet is chasing the bag thief away right behind me. The checker is watching the drama, occasionally offering her two cents. The little machine says “approved,” and I wait for my receipt.

“Are we ready?” asks VTH, who’s got one eye on the drama behind me.

“I’m waiting for my receipt,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what happened,” says the checker. “It should have printed. HAMET!”

I know what happened, I think to myself. You’re trying to do two things at once, and you messed one of them up. The checker is trying to get me to re-run my card. I decline because I’m concerned about being charged twice. Now I’m about ready to scream for Hamet.

Hamet shows up. “I don’t know what happened,” he says in precisely the same tone of voice the checker had used. I’m starting to think it’s part of their official script when something goes wrong. He wants me to rerun my card. There’s quite a bit of conversation about this, not rising to the level of argument due solely to my Dharma training.

Finally I agree to rerun my card provided Hamet gives me a phone number to call in case I get charged twice. Even this is long discussion, because he wants me to come back into the store if that happens. “You might have noticed from my accent that I’m not from around here,” I explain. “Coming back might not be an option.” I’m thinking I could be back in the US before my bank shows the extra charge. Hamet eventually agrees and provides me a phone number.

This whole scenario, from the time it was our turn with our roughly 15 items, took over 10 minutes. There was a long line of angry, fuming people behind me.

There are two take-aways from this experience. First, don’t multi-task. It doesn’t work. After that experience, I’ll never shop at an Asda again. With plenty of other choices, there’s no reason for me to give them a second chance. I’d be willing to bet that at least one of the people in line behind us won’t be back, either.

Multi-tasking isn’t efficient. The Buddha knew it over 2,500 years ago. Had the checker stopped scanning my items to deal with Hamet and the bag thief, then resumed when she had Hamet on the case, it would actually have been much faster. And I might shop there again.

It’s okay to pause one activity while focusing on another. In fact, it’s not just okay, it’s necessary.

Second, just stay calm. The whole situation could have been much worse had I reacted in an angry way. For the sake of complete “transparency” here, I was mad as hell. I just didn’t act on my anger. I never raised my voice. I didn’t cuss. I just looked Hamet in the eye and said, “I’m NOT happy.” Hamet was already having a tough day dealing the bag thief, and there was nothing to be gained by yet another person shouting at him.

When I was younger, I might have enjoyed telling him off. I might have felt a sense of righteous indignation. Then I encountered the Dharma and learned a more skillful way. I no longer enjoy inflicting my negativity on others.

And thank goodness. I’m much happier this way. And I think Hamet is probably happier with me this way, too, even though he doesn’t know it.

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