by Janet M. Shlaes, PhD
We live in a world of multiple simultaneous demands for our attention. The concept of “multi-tasking” was created in order to turn our constant state of agitation into the pretense of a skill. Most likely, you’ve been on both sides of the multi-tasking table, as participant and recipient. Neither side feels particularly satisfying. The undesirable impact of multi-tasking is that you are never fully present to anything or anyone. Although multi-tasking provides the “illusion” of productivity, the cost in terms of stress level and relationships is exceptionally high.
In service of experimentation and moving outside of my comfort zone, I embarked on the mission of “single-tasking” for one week. I discovered that breaking my multi-tasking habit was a lot more challenging than anticipated. Single-tasking required an extremely high level of self- and other-awareness, along with the ability to be fully present to whatever I was doing at any moment in time. It meant that when I was reading, I was just reading; when I was talking on the phone, I was just on the phone and wasn’t scanning my email, making coffee, reading reports or writing; when I was listening to music, I was just listening to music; when I was with someone, I was fully present to what he / she was saying and not going over a mental “to-do list.” Single-tasking also meant that I increased my awareness regarding when I wasn’t present in the moment and the potential impact of this state on others; it also meant intentionally choosing to refocus on whatever was happening in that particular moment.
My discoveries resulting from my single-tasking experiment were powerful. Time seemed to slow down and my senses intensified. I noticed things that previously would have been beyond my conscious awareness: the radiance of whatever was occurring in a particular moment; the sounds and patterns of various types of music; the unique magnificence of the person I was speaking to; the secrets revealed in my familiar urban landscape; the joy present in doing previously insignificant household tasks. An added bonus was how quickly I was able to complete my actual “to-do” list.
I invite you to take on the challenge and gifts of single-tasking and enjoy the experience of being fully present. You have everything to gain and little, if anything, to lose.