I was once talking to a woman who said she admired my ability to multitask so well. She just didn't work this way. She was only able to work on one thing at a time, focus on one thing at a time.
Many thoughts went through my mind as she said this:
- What would it be like to just work on/think about one thing at a time?
- I wish I could think about just one thing at a time and shut my brain up a bit.
- I bet she could multitask if she worked at it; it's a skill just like anything else and can be learned.
- How can she get anything done by working on just one thing at a time?
See? Even in that second that followed her comment my brain was jumping around.
According to my Buddhist meditation DVD, that's called the monkey mind. It's part of our nature. And the way to peace is to learn to calm it.
So why is it so hard to focus on just one thing at a time?
I think a big part of it is that our society rewards multitasking. Many of us struggle with I'm-busier-than-you syndrome. I know I've bought into this way of thinking. Busy is good. Busy is productive. Busy is something to be proud of and wave around like a flag of accomplishment.
How many times have you written a Facebook post that says "I have to do this and this and this" - which is partly complaining and partly bragging? How many times have you been talking to someone and done the same thing? How many times have you heard someone rattle off their list (in the same feigned griping way) and felt like you had to match or top it by complaining of your day? Or felt like you couldn't talk about your day because you only did one thing or didn't have anything really to do that day?
Seriously, when did having a light schedule come to mean you were lazy? When did a day of peaceful rest or strolling through the park or reading for hours become something to be ashamed of? When did doing one thing instead of five things come to mean you were a slacker? Why is chewing gum and walking considered more intelligent than just walking?
Studies have shown that monotasking is more efficient (but since I can't reference any of them I'm not going to talk about that anymore).
I'm going to talk about the value I see in doing one thing at a time. Seriously think about it for a minute. Just. One. Thing.
Now, if you're a reader you might do this already. I know I can't do anything else while I read. Except laundry. Or the dishes. Or run errands and then come back to it. Each of these interruptions makes our reading less efficient. It takes us a few minutes to get back into what we're reading. We lose the cohesiveness of the content. And if it's a story, we pull ourselves out of the moment the characters are having. In my mind, that's a less enjoyable story.
All this is to say I believe monotasking is more efficient and more accurate (okay, so I'm going to talk about its efficiency a bit). If we jump around from thing to thing to thing the power of focus on just that one thing is lost. There's a rev up factor to most tasks. If we have to rev up again and again because we did something else in between, it takes that much longer.
And if we're giving something our full attention it will be more accurate. Do you think your taxes will be more accurate if you're concentrating on that task alone or if you're having a conversation while you're working on them? Is your driving safer when you concentrate on that task alone or when you're also texting or talking on the phone or arguing with someone in the car? Would you like your surgeon to focus just on his task at hand while operating on you or would you like him to also be consulting on another case with another doctor as he cuts into your body?
I believe monotasking allows us to enjoy the full flavor of a moment. If you glance at the sunset as you drive to the store and note how pretty it is, that's nice. But if you pull over and take a few moments to just examine the sunset, the multiple shades of multiple colors, the wonder of the earth, the feeling it gives you, isn't that a different experience? A better experience? Imagine how this would change your experience at church. At the temple. With your spouse.
And that brings me to my next point. Imagine what it does for the person you're with when you pay full attention to them. When you're not also playing on whatever device is at hand. When you're not checking text messages. When you're not answering calls. How do they feel when you are just with them, completely?
Imagine the stillness it can bring. Not just physical stillness, although I would argue some of us need a bit more of that. But the mental stillness. The emotional stillness. The spiritual stillness. To just be in that moment.
I heard a podcast many years ago that has stuck with me. It was a Quaker woman. She talked about how the Quakers strive to devote each action to God. When they are sweeping, they are only sweeping. And they are doing it for God.
Maybe you have no intention of sweeping for God, but what if all you did was sweep? What if your brain weren't running all over the place trying to solve the problems of your life? What if you focused on that moment instead of just rushing through to get to the next chore? What if you focused on the sound of the broom on the floor? The feeling of the muscles in your arms and hands maneuvering the broom? The sight of the cleanliness that emerges as you sweep? What if you just swept in stillness?
I think even sweeping could be rejuvenating that way.
And that brings me to my final point. I believe monotasking can be rejuvenating. I believe it relieves our minds and bodies of the constant back and forth that is so draining. I believe it lets our muscles relax a bit, both mental and physical. I believe it's good for us.
And, yes, this was a long way to describe mindfulness. A powerful way to live life (even just moments). A way to soothe depression, anxiety, stress, high blood pressure, and many other struggles. A way to feel more peace.
Because couldn't we all use a little more peace?
But just because I believe it's good for us doesn't mean I'm good at it. I'm working on it. I'm still often uncomfortable doing just one thing at a time. I still find myself listening to an audiobook while cleaning the house. I still find myself playing solitaire while watching something on Netflix. I still have trouble calming my monkey mind. But I'm trying.