The Art of Mono-Tasking: Reclaiming the Ancient Practice of Doing One Thing At a Time

This-not-that

The stars had aligned and the five of us sat down to play a game together.  It was a new one from Christmas, we were all sloths racing around a track, and the last one across the finish line won!  It was a cute premise and we laughed along for ten minutes.  Unfortunately, the game hadn’t ended.

Twenty minutes in, a couple of kids were getting fidgety.  By thirty minutes in, we were all ready for a change of pace.  I’m not sure when the first person took out their phone to check a message, but once the seal was broken there was no going back.

The temptation to multi-task can be overwhelming.  I rarely watch a movie with my family without also playing a game on my phone.  I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve found myself drifting away from large meetings at work and “just getting a couple of things done” while also listening to the conversation.  

I don’t think I’m alone.  As Tara and I review a pre-marriage inventory with engaged couples, we nearly always must discuss the use of cell phones because one of the engaged, or both, are already concerned about the habits they see.  Struggling with balancing all the people and things that seem to demand our attention is seemingly universal.

Multi-tasking is a valued skill in many professions.  However, the term is used far too broadly, in my opinion.  In a fast-paced software development context, successful professionals need to be able to rapidly switch gears and respond to events as they come.  

It’s not enough to focus on a project, we are expected to respond to questions, help others move forward, engage critical issues that come up, and keep a finger on the pulse of the team while making progress on the task of the moment.  In this sense, “multi-tasking” is more the ability to switch between multiple tasks seamlessly and with minimal time spent in transition.  At no point have I found it appropriate for myself, or someone on my team, to literally work on two tasks at once.  I’ve done it, as mentioned above, but one of the tasks always suffers.

While efficiency in a dynamic workplace is valuable, this skill can be really hard to turn off.  A Sunday afternoon at home in a pandemic has a much slower pace and far less stimulation than many of us are used to.  Focusing on a single conversation, a particular activity, or a specific person feels unnatural.  We’re conditioned to use our time to be more productive.

The thing is, how should we measure productivity in human relationships?

As people tell stories of modern-day saints like Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II, I can’t help noticing a theme that those who talked to them often remark that they felt they were the only person in the world during that conversation.  Here was a person with grave responsibilities and a hectic schedule, but when they gave their attention to a conversation, they gave themselves completely.

Backing up a little bit, some of my favorite Gospel stories are of Jesus noticing people that everyone else is too busy for.  In particular, I think of the blind man who was told by the crowd to be quiet and leave Jesus alone (Lk 18:35-43).  Jesus had every right to focus on the task at hand.  He had speeches and teaching to deliver.  He had vast crowds of sick and suffering to attend to.  I’m sure there was a deep temptation to rush through the needs of each person to quickly get to the next.  Reading the Gospels though, Jesus never seemed caught up in being efficient at the expense of connecting.

Where does that leave us?  Have we mastered the art of mono-tasking?  Are the conversations and interactions with others, especially with family members, something we give our entire self—all of our attention and presence—to or have we developed a habit of giving “just enough” attention; simultaneously balancing whatever’s on the TV, whoever’s in the room, and the latest trends on social media?

Giving our full attention to someone is one of the greatest gifts we can give.  If there’s always pressure to do more and keep up with everything, maybe it’s time to choose to get good at mono-tasking.  Take the time to mentally decide what person or task has our attention right now and build the discipline to set aside everything else until we’re done.

Yes, sometimes spending quality time with family can feel like a herd of sloths running a race in slow motion, but even those moments may be savored and can be deeply rewarding when we give ourselves to them completely.

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