Why Multitasking Stinks

"No wonder we have the attention span of a ferret on a triple cappucino." – James Bryan Smith I've come to a conclusion about what might be one of the most helpful things to do in my efforts to live prayerfully this year: renounce multitasking. Much of what I hope to gain from this year's experiment is an increased ability to pay attention to God and to those around me, and there may be no other socially encouraged practice that works against this as much as trying to accomplish multiple things at once.

Perhaps some people are more wired to be multitaskers than others, and I'm just not one with the wiring for it, but I think there's another level to it. In Live Prayerfully, I talk about how the point of times we have specifically set aside for prayer isn't what happens to us during those times, but how they help us to be prayerful in all of the other parts of our lives. The point of this post is what happens in the other direction: how the way we live during the rest of our lives impacts what we do when we attempt to give our attention to prayer.

It seems like we're blinded to it, but there's a pretty obvious connection between the ways that we intentionally let our attention flit from one thing to another during 90%+ of our waking hours and then find it very difficult to stay focused when we try to give God our attention in five minutes of prayer. The more advanced our technological gadgets become, the higher the number of constant potential distractions and interruptions we always have with us. (Remember in the old days–six or seven years ago– when you actually had to go sit at a computer to check email?)

How prayerful might my life be, if during the +/- 23 hours of the day that I'm doing something other than spending time set aside for prayer, I was committed to only doing one thing at a time? My hunch is that during that 24th hour of the day, my mind, spirit, and body would be able to settle down more easily and give my attention go God–then I would also be able to give better attention to others during the course of a normal day.

So, some ideas for training myself to do one thing at a time for the purpose of increasing my ability to pay attention to God and others:

  • Even while I've been writing this, I changed from my normal on-computer working routine (which almost always includes having at least five programs open simultaneously) to having nothing on my screen except writing this. My computer is very able to do multiple things at once, but perhaps it's not good for me to see more than one of them.
  • I wonder if it's possible for me to regress to those email practices of six or seven years ago and go back to only working on email when at my desk. Of course it's convenient to be able to check and send messages from my phone, but I'd guess that 90% of the times I check email on my phone, I'm not looking for any message in particular–and the ones that come in are almost never things that can't wait. I'm also usually with other people who are more worthy of my attention than those messages that grab my attention. Checking email on my phone is apparently more of a physically ingrained habit than it is a useful activity.
  • One of the quickest ways for me to lose patience with my kids is for me to try to accomplish anything while they're with me and want my attention. Sure, there are times when something has to be done at that moment, but most of the time I have a choice and could easily put my task away (usually something on my phone or computer) and give my attention to my kids instead.

Other ideas?


Something I've prayed this week:

O God, who before the passion of your only-begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Prayer for Transfiguration Sunday from The Book of Common Prayer)

[This is the 20th post from A Year of Living Prayerfully]