Multitasking: Really, just stop it!

Earlier this year, the writer Oliver Berkman teetered on the brink of feeling overwhelmed by life – its responsibilities, its expectations, its demands.  

Inflicting the emotional low blow was the ambient anxiety that comes as a standard feature of life these days. So, in an effort to restore some measure of his sanity, Mr. Berkman launched himself on a personal challenge of trial endurance.  

Other similarly afflicted souls set their sights on competing in grueling triathlons, or heading off to intensive, sherpa-led meditation retreats, or booking the adventure-travel experience that bills itself as the odyssey of fulfillment for your wildest dreams.  

But, no. Mr. Berkman took a different tack, a decidedly low-tech approach. He chose to shun multitasking.  

He decided to give up listening to music, books, or podcasts, while walking, running, or driving. Or while loading the dishwasher, or unloading the dryer. Or while doing almost anything else or nothing at all! Oliver Berkman challenged himself to simply focus on what he was actually doing, one activity at a time, each in its minute.  

It was surprisingly hard: Being fully present in those moments of chore singularity.  

And it sounds comically ridiculous: Actually branding such a paltry deviation of habit as a battlefield victory in the grand existential struggle of the ages.  

Nevertheless, here’s an idea: Why not give it a try?  

Identify those tricks of trade and trendy lifehacks that enable you to avoid being fully present in whatever you’re doing and whomever you’re meeting. Then, set aside those shiny baubles of distraction for a week or two. Your goals and outcomes are simple and straight-forward:  

Restoring your capacity for sequential, linear living; improving your ability to concentrate on one thing, then another, each in its turn; learning to endure the confrontation of your human limitation.

Such skills and behaviors rank high on your list of tools for resilient thriving in the anxious hours of our crisis-prone days.  And somewhere along the way, you just might recognize – spoiler alert! – that you’re unwittingly addicted to doing more than one thing at a time.  

Our inclination to multitask is nothing new.

The centuries-old observation is sure and worthy of full acceptance: “One thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.” To continue the riff, one works out wearing Beats Pro Fit buds in both ears, and one drives to school or work listening to the latest best-seller in audio books.  

We’ve also long observed that multitasking simply doesn’t really work.  

You’ve might have read – while half-watching Netflix – articles explaining research strongly pointing to the scandalous reality that multitasking isn’t really even possible!  

For the most part, we’re just rapidly switching our limited attention spans between Thing One and Thing Two without even realizing it! And each dart and sway of focus comes with a cost. One study of drivers found that only 3 percent showed no performance decrease when attempting two tasks at once. The 97 percent of the rest of us just end up doing everything worse!  

Yet the pressure to multitask weighs heavy with unrelenting force. Burdened by so many demands at school, home, or work, you feel as though you’ve no choice but to split your attentions.

Meanwhile, limited energies parse one’s personal responsibility to address the troubles of the wider world. The numerous causes for alarm surely feel like calls to action: The climate, the fate of democracy; threats from artificial intelligence and enemies both foreign and domestic; bullet casings littering bloody classrooms, workplaces, and town squares – Armageddon seeming ever closer.  

Taken together – as they always are, such burdens, demands, responsibilities, troubles, and threats make multitasking look and sound like every red-blooded American’s civic and spiritual duty!  

Surely technology further tightens the screws. There was a time – way back in the day, when the option of seizing hold of smart phones and social media to distract ourselves from unpleasant tasks simply wasn’t available. The inherent limits of the tools then at one’s disposal — the slow pace of snail mail, for example, or the time and effort it took to visit a library to conduct research — meant we felt less pressure from teachers, bosses, or customers to somehow transcend the hard boundaries that our limited attention spans impose.  

Perhaps that’s truly what lies at the core of our struggles as finite human beings.  

It sure would explain the allure of multitasking.

To wit, multitasking offers false hope that you and I might somehow slip the bonds of our finite humanity. We’ve taken the bait hook, line, and sinker, and now, tangled in the landing net, we’ve convinced ourselves of this:  

That with sufficient self-discipline, plus the right smartphone app and a stylish biofeedback watch, we just might finally get on top of everything, get all our ducks in a row, and at long last get to feeling good about ourselves. Such utopia never arrives, of course. Though it often feels as if such bliss lurks just around the next corner.  

The uncomfortable truth is that the only way to find sanity in an overwhelming world — and to have any concrete effect on that world — is to surrender one’s efforts to push the hard boundaries of human time and ability, drop back down into the broken reality of our limitation, get out of the way, and let God be God. Let the One brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, be the One. Let grace be grace, and love be love.  

Distracting yourself from challenging tasks by, say, listening to podcasts doesn’t actually make dirty jobs any more bearable over the long term. Instead, distraction drains the daily routine of its purpose and meaning. Diversion makes errands and responsibilities less enjoyable, by reinforcing your belief that distraction from errands and responsibilities creates tolerance for their performance — while at the same time, all but ensuring that you’ll neither accomplish the task in question, nor digest the contents of the podcast, as well as you otherwise might.  

Performance climbs to its peak only when you let most tasks wait while you focus on one. Making a difference or leaving your mark in one domain requires giving yourself permission not to care equally about all the others in that moment.  

Face it, there’ll always be too much to do, no matter what you do.  

But the ironic upside of this seemingly dispiriting fact is a lifesaver: Never, ever, beat yourself up for failing to do it all.  And please stop pressuring yourself to find the supposedly holy grail of extreme multitasking.

Instead, try pouring finite time, energy, and attention into a handful of things that truly matter, one at a time, as God calls. As Jesus teaches, and as the Spirit leads. You only can ever be in the here and now anyway, so you might as well give up the pointless and stressful struggle to pretend otherwise.  

And thus the spotlight again falls on Ten Commandments. Ancient words, ever true, focus on the singular activities of greatest import:  

I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” Plain and simple, we love God, because God loved us first, and no other god even comes close to granting that kind of undeserved favor. Focus on that, and that alone.  

The second word of commandment cautions of believing one’s own publicity, of thinking more highly of one’s self than one ought, of regarding one’s self as wiser than God – in trying to create images that restrict the nature of God and our understanding of God. Focus on that, and start your honest confession from there!  

Focus on your lack of focus upon the image that God themselves give us in Jesus, upon how that very image – thanks to the Holy Spirit – must shine steadfastly in all your living, moving, and breathing. Focus solely on your lack of focus on dwelling in holiness.

Take not in vain! God chooses a name you can’t help but speak from life’s first cry to final breath!  All of us, always, everywhere: Waking, sleeping, breathing, with the name of God on our lips, praising the Lord’s down-to-earth love for each and every blessed one of us. Focus exclusively on your breathing. Yah-Weh. Yah-Weh.  

Keep the Lord’s Day special! Creation and Redemption rise from Sabbath. Creation and Redemption – two big movements in the story of God with us, and both nestle intimately in Sabbath. The way God made us – and the way we’ve been saved by God – both point us toward Sabbath. Focus solely on that, and abide in its grace.  

The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!    

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, August 27, 2023. It is the sixth in his current series on The Ten Commandments. Scholarship and reflection by Peter Drucker and Friedrich Nietzsche inform the message.  

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