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Take daily living one thing at a time and end the burden of multitasking

By Walt Shelton
Special to the American-Statesman
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin.

How many things can we do at once? If it is a lot, do we consider it a strength or a weakness?

Many consider multitasking a necessity in our modern world. From busy professionals to parents to retirees, most people have numerous duties and priorities to balance with “to do” lists that seem endless. People often work to perfect their multitasking skills. Modern communication devices are helpful in quantitatively completing tasks throughout the day.

To me, a more important question than how much we can do simultaneously is: How many things can we do well and with full intention and attention at once? Only one.

While the goal of doing several things at once allegedly might be balancing multiple priorities, I believe that multitasking results in imbalance. Further, it is a detriment to our wellbeing by keeping us in a rushed state throughout most of the day. Doing so many things at once dilutes our performance in most everything we do, as well as compromising our quality of life.

I don’t question whether multitasking is a skill. However, not all skills are healthy. 

While doing many things at once is difficult, it is much easier than the hard work of being truly attentive to the moment. That practically means paying full, focused and sole attention to the person or task right in front of us, as well as awareness of opportunities all around us that we might miss from preoccupation with doing so much at once and anticipating how much else we “have to get done.”

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5-7) is the longest collection of his teachings in the New Testament. Two verses are relevant to living and thinking singularly vs. with multiplicity for Christians or anyone interested in more meaningful day-to-day experiences. “If your eye is healthy, then your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22), and “the gate is narrow, and the road is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14).

Our “eye” is our focal point. When its object is one person or thing at a time, then our eye is healthy and has the potential to flood the person or task with qualitative attentiveness and illumination. Yet, this is not an “easy road” for us.

Mindful daily living takes hard work. We must not only intend to take matters one at a time. Rather, we must couple our good intentions with commitment and re-commitment each day. Inevitably, we’ll fall back into the habitual mindset of “having too much to do in too little time.”

We should work on personal strategies to get back on an attentive track of qualitative attention and work. While we might reduce the quantity of things we do each day, we need not sacrifice efficiency. More importantly, we’ll improve the quality of our work.

We might also find that we both re-think and re-set our priorities. Indeed, we might discover that we truly do live with a shorter list of true priorities, such as attending to our families, friends, health and vocations, and being caring and compassionate toward other people.

When we have too much on our minds and “plates” at one time, we might miss out on opportunities for meaningful service right before us. Multitasking and a mind loaded with planning ahead rob us of the capacity of spontaneity to attend to important needs that might arise.

A few themes can help us get focused. We should endeavor to live sequentially instead of simultaneously. When we approach our day with a healthy and singular “eye,” we can avoid the dispersion of thought and effort that accompany a rushed orientation to do as much as possible as quickly as we can.

When we enter an overwhelmed mode, we might stop, breathe, and then think as many times a day as necessary: “live sequentially and attentively in the now.”

One of my favorite Harold Kushner quotes comes to mind: “Fill each day with one day’s worth of meaning.” How about that objective as a daily preparatory “devotional” and “go to” when we stray off a healthy track during our day to re-focus on one meaningful day at a time? We can also break it down into each part of the day — making it meaningful.

It also works when we are very busy. We work on staying busy in a sequential manner with one thing at a time in a qualitative manner before moving on to the next thing. When we are inevitably bombarded with more than one thing at once, we simply do our best to mitigate the multitasking and get back to a sequential and attentive mode.

Developing good new habits takes time and effort, and we might never fully arrive. Yet, if we progress toward a sequential and truly prioritized lifestyle, then we can fill our lives and the lives of people around us with more meaning, one day at a time.

Walt Shelton is the author of the Nautilus Award winning book, :The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living" (CrossLink Publishing 2020). His next book, "Authentic Living in All Seasons: Focused, Fearless, and Balanced," is scheduled for publication in June. Walt is a longtime professor at Baylor Law School, environmental attorney, frequent speaker on life quality and faith-related matters and leads discussion groups in association with The Church at Highland Park in Austin.