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Regarding the dark side of multi-tasking


Yun Huang Yong | CC BY 2.0

Tod Worner - published on 05/23/18

Why we need to stop grinding out the demands of life, and learn to be intentional -- at work and at home.

“We are no longer able to hear God…there are too many frequencies filling our ears.”

– Pope Benedict XVI

Around the end of April, I hit a wall. Perhaps, at some point, you have too.

In the span of three weeks, I had given three public presentations (What William Shakespeare Can Teach You About the Practice of Medicine, and two on Why William Osler Matters), written several essays for one Catholic website, an additional essay for another, and penned a chapter for an upcoming book on G.K. Chesterton. In addition, I lectured twice weekly to medical students/residents as well as had appointments with my own internal medicine clinic population. Most importantly, I spent time with my wife and daughters on evenings, weekends and on a Spring Break trip to Austin and San Antonio.

But I was tapped out.

Now, my tendency when I am tired (and depressed) is to work more. If I feel I am not where I am supposed to be, I refine my goals, redouble my efforts and hope to reap the benefits. Per my usual approach, I started making my list of venues to write for, classes to teach, projects to undertake. Set goals, I told myself. Stay up later. Get up early. Get ‘er done. Unfortunately, the goal-setting that previously enlivened me didn’t make me feel better. It made me feel worse.

That’s when I realized I needed to do less, not more.

For several years, I have been reminding my medical students and residents that they need to be intentional. If you are not engaged with the patient (albeit you have to do some typing in the room), you will quickly find that you are grinding out a job, not fulfilling a vocation. But this is hard — damned hard. There are a thousand different demands in our lives: phone calls, papers to sign, people to see, refills to approve, emails to return, problems to dissect. And that’s just at work. We can’t forget that at home there are children to feed, homework to review, experiences to unpack, problems to counsel, bills to pay, dishes to wash, lawns to mow (and perhaps, a little sleep to enjoy). How are we supposed to get all of this done?

At some point, some genius suggested a scheme called “multi-tasking.”

Multi-tasking is the art of doing multiple things at once. Envision the mother with phone crooked in her neck, arm holding baby, other arm vacuuming and a foot delicately stirring the spaghetti sauce. This was considered the gold standard. “Wow! How does she do it all? She multi-tasks.”

This is a mirage.

Time management has become a religion in which everyone carries a calendar and a to-do list. The cardinal virtue of the multi-tasker is efficiency. To “capably” work long hours and repeatedly find oneself committed to two or more meetings or tasks at the same time is seen as a badge of honor that only the hardy can balance. Businesses of all forms demand multi-tasking by terminating people and shifting their responsibilities onto the shoulders of an already overworked individual. The organization may foster nervous breakdowns, but at least (it is reasoned) they save money in the process. Meetings are now called into because people can’t afford the time to travel or are in another meeting at the same time. Even if in the same room, people make less eye contact because they are not paying attention. They clean their email or work on some other clandestine yet “vital” project at the same time. Some do this on the sly, while others do it with impunity. They just don’t give a damn.

With efficiency being the highest priority, people are increasingly coarse, curt and frankly disinterested. Life as a multi-tasker is utilitarian — “I care only insofar as you can help me,” not intentional — “I care about you as I simultaneously try to achieve the goal ahead of me.” As St. John Paul II observed, “In the materialistic perspective described so far, interpersonal relations are seriously impoverished …The criterion of personal dignity — which demands respect, generosity and service — is replaced by the criterion of efficiency, functionality and usefulness: others are considered not for what they ‘are,’ but for what they ‘have, do and produce.'” Before long, the multi-tasker is fully sleepwalking in the dreamscape of efficiency. She does what she does because she can do it, not because she ought to do it. And the money and accolades are only gripped tighter and more jealously because the multi-tasker inevitably grows tired and resentful. “For all the sacrifices I make, I deserve this. To hell with anybody or anything that slows me down or tries to take what is mine.”


But we are not made for efficiency. We are made for intentionality.

Intentionality is not some starry-eyed unreality where time is wasted in the name of syrupy sentimentality. Instead, it is a matter of “being here now.” Even the simplest of children can tell whether you are listening to them, thoughtfully considering their words and responding with appropriate nuance. They can smell “auto-pilot” from a mile away. And I would reason, the presence of an iPhone or a television exponentially increase the tendency toward “auto-pilot” and away from intentionality. As the iconic godfather of internal medicine William Osler once observed, “Think not of the amount to be accomplished, the difficulties to be overcome, or the end to be attained, but set earnestly at the little task at your elbow, letting that be sufficient for the day.” Intentionality is a stake in the heart of multi-tasking. It isn’t trapped in the rumination of the past, nor obsessed with the plans for the future. And, in the present moment, it isn’t trying to cram 10 pounds of manure in a five-pound can. What is clear is that it is impossible to do several tasks at once and to care enough about any one of them. That doesn’t mean that we won’t find ourselves having to juggle at times — of course, we will. But what if what you are constantly juggling with the most important things in your life (your faith, your family, your fitness, your life’s calling) with less important things? Think about it: How much less are you valuing your most vital priorities if even they can never get your full attention?

We are not made for efficiency. We are made for intentionality.

So when I reflected on what I needed to do after my overcommitted month of April, I realized: I don’t need to do more, but less. Since May began, when I wake up, in spite of the days’ commitments, I tell myself, “I have nothing I have to do today.” Mind you, I help get my kids ready and drive them to school, I see patients and teach medical students, I help with homework and wash dishes. But I said “no” to multi-tasking. I say “no” to commitments that don’t capture my passion. I put my phone down. I listen to my wife. I engage with my kids. I pray at random times during the day. I focus on my patients. I even put bags of mulch in my yard. And when the knee-jerk stress would rise in me that I wasn’t going fast enough or wasn’t efficient enough, I reminded myself to do one thing at a time; to be intentional. A friend recently told me of a monk who was asked when he was going on vacation. The monk responded, “I’m on vacation every day.” What would it take for us to order our lives so that our commitments and responsibilities would inspire and enliven us, instead of burden and overwhelm us? What are we waiting for?

To be sure, one thing about being intentional is that you will get fewer things done. You will have to triage and simply let some things go. But this, inevitably, will be more liberating because hard-edged efficiency and multi-tasking, while mid-wifing achievements, will always leave you feeling a little bit empty. What you get done by being intentional will be infinitely more meaningful because you were truly there. You were present. You weren’t sleepwalking through the conversation. You weren’t blind to the expression on your kid’s face. You weren’t deaf to the subtle pause in your colleague’s story. You lived more fully.

Soren Kierkegaard once observed that we must

“allow the quiet and the retirement in which the Eternal may unfold a divine growth … It is true that a mirror has the quality of enabling a man to see his image in it, but for this he must stand still. If he rushes hastily by, he sees nothing.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Beware the dark side of multi-tasking, the siren song of efficiency.

After all, we are made for intentionality.

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