The Office of Stewardship
“Single-tasking is the opposite of multitasking, and it’s better in virtually every way.”
Chris Bailey, A Life of Productivity
Father began his homily this past week by retelling his experience watching other drivers. There were drivers singing, drivers texting, drivers reading the newspaper (what? Did he really see that?), drivers arguing and drivers talking on the phone. He said, “And they were doing all of these things while holding on to a steering wheel attached to several thousand pounds of metal!” If challenged about this, he went on to say, many would argue that they were simply multi-tasking and doing so in a perfectly safe manner. My friend, Kati, who was seriously injured in a car accident caused by a driver who was texting, would beg to disagree.
This idea of multi-tasking is a popular one in our culture. I guess we can blame the dopamine (see below) for the almost irresistible temptation to multi-task. As it turns out though, it is a pretty bad idea, from both a scientific as well a spiritual perspective. Here’s one author’s summary of the science:
“Doing more than one thing at a time is a great way to become busier, and it’s usually a more engaging way of working. When we try doing multiple things at the same time, the brain is more stimulated, and it releases more dopamine (a main pleasure chemical). But study after study has shown that while multitasking can be stimulating, and may even make us feel more productive, it invariably makes us less productive.
The attention we can give to what’s in front of us is limited. Every moment, our brain is flooded with information—sights, sounds, words, thoughts, to-dos, and more. It can only focus on so much. (One fascinating study conducted by Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia found that while our brain receives 11 million “bits” of information each second, it can only process 40 of them.) We need to invest our limited attention wisely.
Most surprisingly, multitasking studies show that when we think we’re multitasking, we actually aren’t multitasking. It’s impossible for our brains to focus on two tasks at once—it’s actually rapidly switching between them. Instead of channeling our complete focus and energy into one task, we spread it thin, which prevents us from diving deep into any one of our tasks. When we multitask, we do a mediocre job of everything.”
So kudos to those of you willing to challenge yourselves to single task both at work and at home in order to be more productive. But how does this thought apply to the spiritual life? Father’s thoughts were on the first reading of the day, Romans 12:5-16. In it St. Paul lists no less than 13 virtues a Christian should practice. The list can be overwhelming. How can we possibly do all of these things well? Father recommended we focus on just one thing at a time. He is in good company. Matthew Kelly suggests:
“Sometimes we can become hypnotized by complexity. We become paralyzed by too many opportunities. We become paralyzed by choices. And so, if we think about growing in virtue, and we look at all the virtues we could grow in, it’s easy to become paralyzed by that. The way to get beyond that is just to pick one. Just to pick one. Pick one virtue, and say, OK, I’m going to focus on this virtue. I’m going to grow in this virtue. I’m going to practice this virtue intentionally. I’m going to do something intentionally to practice this virtue every day—for a week, or three weeks, or a month, or whatever—and then move on to another virtue.” https://dynamiccatholic.com/best-lent-ever/lent-reflections-2018/growing-in-virtue
St. Francis De Sales, writing in the 17th century, also offers the same advice in his famous book, “The Introduction to the Devout Life.” And this is one of the great lessons to be found in St. Therese’s Little Way. She taught us the value of doing all things for the Lord. And I know that if I am truly doing something for the King of Kings, I am putting my whole attention into doing it well, even if it is only sweeping the floor! Clarence Enzler in the spiritual classic, “My Other Self” advises, “Do one thing at a time. Try to maintain serenity and deliberateness always, but especially in your routine actions . . . .being thus patient, you will find yourself progressing also in all other virtues.”
And here’s the really encouraging thing — our concentration on doing one thing at a time, frees us to do it well. And when it comes to the virtues, we gain more than just the one virtue we are working on. Because the virtues are like magnets, one draws others. Matthew Kelly again: “while you’re growing in that one virtue that you’ve chosen specifically to focus on, . . . .you’re growing in all of the other virtues just by focusing on growing in that one virtue. There’s just this incredible genius in our faith—the way it’s put together, the way it’s designed to help us live incredible lives. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a really beautiful thing.”
Amen! So let’s focus on just one thing and doing it well and then give it over to the Lord, doing it for Him and in Him. And then watch as the virtues blossom in our lives!
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