Have you wondered why fibromyalgia (FMS) and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS or ME/CFS) make it so difficult to do things like cook dinner, shop for groceries, or do even the simplest multi-tasking? Some days, I swear I can't walk and chew gum at the same time. This problem, more than anything, is what lead me to leave my TV news-producing career -- producers have to multi-task, and after 8 years on the job I no longer could.
The cognitive aspects of these conditions often take a back seat where research and treatment are concerned, but for many of us they're as debilitating or more debilitating than pain and fatigue. I could work tired, I could work in pain, but I couldn't work with fibro fog. I've known for a couple of years that this was a shared experience, but I only recently read an explanation of it.
Dr. Gudrun Lange, a neuroscientist at the University of medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, wrote a great article on this recently for the International Association for CFS/ME. She describes how a "simple" trip for the grocery store is overwhelming to our senses and leads to frustration and anxiety, which then lead to a crash. Boy, could I relate -- I've resolved most of my anxiety issues, but a crowded grocery store can still push me into panic mode.
Dr. Lange explains how our brains handle multi-tasking through what are called "executive control systems," which allow us to accomplish many small goals in order to complete a larger task. In order for the control systems to work, they have to have a good information processing speed and intact working memory (ability to remember things for a short time.) We have neither. It's like trying to run an X-Box game on an Atari -- the system requirements just aren't there.
But we can't very well stop doing things that require multi-tasking, can we? Dr. Lange has some suggestions for a new approach to these jobs, and a new definition of success when it comes to goals.
Essentially, she suggests breaking tasks into their component parts. Do one thing at a time, and count every completed task as a success. Then move on to the next.
When it comes to things like grocery shopping, that require lists, she suggests keeping a running list in a notebook that's always in the same place, so you can jot things down as you think of them, instead of trying to figure out everything you need at once. (I keep a magnetized notepad on my fridge.) Prioritize your lists so that if you have to cut a shopping trip short, you know you've gotten the most important things and you can count the trip as a success.
Some other tips from Dr. Lange:
- Don't wander up and down every aisle. Find the aisles that contain your priority items and only go down those.
- Don't drive to the store during rush hour.
- Try to park your car in the same area every time so you can find it when you're done.
I've "lost" my car in parking lots so often that my 7-year-old son now looks for aisle numbers so he can remind me where to go!
For multi-tasking in general, I've been able to improve somewhat by forcing myself to keep things in my head -- essentially exercising my working memory. I started with one thing at a time, and when I got better at that I started adding a second. For example, I'll go into the produce aisle, look at the produce items on my list, and try to get them without consulting the list. Now, at times, I can remember 3-4 items at a time. It can be frustrating, but it pays off.
What helps you with multi-tasking activities? How has the inability to multi-task impacted your life? Leave a comment below!
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