The timer beeps as my toddler cries as a text dings as my laptop flashes an email … as my mind explodes. I repress the urge to bark the chaos into stillness. Then I breathe, sidestep the whirling cloud, and carry on.
Ah, the multi-tasking life: hurtling forward, leaving us all with whiplash and crumbled shards of attention. Are we happy yet? More efficient?
Truth is, I love multi-tasking. I live by my laptop and smart phone, and an unanswered email or text is an anomaly. I march with my media to the drumbeat of productivity. Don't we all?
Of course multi-tasking is earth-old; Adam and Eve no doubt conversed while picking fruit. But to-day's multi-tasking is new in type: multi-tasking means doing two mental things, such as talking and texting. I love Christine Rosen's definition: doing "simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible."
It's the tools that really amp up the game. Remember when it was just a radio, landline, and TV? Today's an unending flood of Twitter, mobile apps, iPads bringing us triple the daily information folks consumed in 1960.
But multi-tasking comes with two big problems. First, it doesn't make us any more efficient than solo-tasking—we actually perform tasks more slowly because brains need extra time to toggle be-tween tasks. Second, it's downright bad for us.
How is it bad? It impedes short-term memory, decreases overall mental performance, and causes stress, hormonally triggering "a vicious cycle where we multi-task, take longer to get things done, then feel harried and compelled to multi-task more," says journalist John Naish. And the brain-toggling that comes with ongoing multi-tasking shortens our attention, eventually addicting us through spurts of adrenaline continually being released. In the absence of multi-tasking, one study reported in The New York Times concluded, "people feel bored."
Research shows that the average person at a computer terminal changes windows roughly 40 times an hour. And that's me. I toggle with the best of them, cycling through the media loop—reading emails whenever I pass my laptop, texting at a red light. I go 10 directions at once, a horse without blinders. I give away my attention—second by second—to trivial and fleeting things throughout the day. And I'm less present to what's before me than I'd like to admit.
Lately I've been polling myself on the spiritual ramifications of this lifestyle. How's my soul affected when I continually change inputs? The answers are a sea of red flags. Here's what I see habitual, media-reliant multi-tasking doing—hints at a time—at the soul level:
- It boxes out a gentle spirit. A habit of continually checking my "inputs"—emails, texts, Twitter, whatever—cultivates a reactiveness and restlessness in my soul; a quiet moment no longer feels quiet. I continually feel as if I should be doing something (else). No chance I'll hear the still, small Voice in that mode.
- It increases my impatience. I get used to receiving instant feedback, anytime and anywhere, and my patience muscles atrophy. Waiting feels unacceptable.
- It inflames my sense of entitlement and self-importance. I begin to believe that life owes me connectivity and feedback whenever I want, and I feel wronged when I don't get it.
- It lies to me about control. Ongoing connectivity gives the illusion of control, persuading me that accessibility is vital and that I can simultaneously manage all my "worlds" with a click. But isn't God supposed to be the one in control?
- It erodes self-control while inflaming greed. Hourly I face the temptation to multi-task in a quiet moment—in the check-out line, at a red light. Self-gratification often wins out over self-control. Mul-ti-tasking, greed in disguise, wants it all at once.
- It blinds me to my neighbor. Would the Samaritan have noticed the wounded man on the road if he were texting? Or if he'd visually registered him, would he have given the situation enough attention to stop and help? How many opportunities have I missed because I was busy doing so many "important" things?
It's enslaving. Ongoing multi-tasking—always beholden to responding, to fitting in another thing—is a life of bondage. I subject myself to unsleeping digital taskmasters in the name of efficien-cy. Is this the freedom Jesus died to give me?
It chases away Christ-centered cohesion of spirit, replacing it with fragmentation. This is the most consistent spiritual red flag I feel when multi-tasking. Others agree: "I feel more scattered than I ought to most days," says one. Another: "I struggle to communicate with others without also having my mind on other things."
The spirit-fragmentation that comes with chronic multi-tasking reminds me of Thomas Kelly's words in Testament of Devotion: "We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we're unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed …. There's a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power."
Here's Kelly's solution: live from a deep, Jesus-anchored "center of living, where the fretful calls of life are integrated, where no as well as yes can be said with confidence."
About this centered life, Richard Foster writes in Freedom of Simplicity: "Everything becomes ori-ented to this new Center of reference …. Our many selves are stilled by the Holy Within. All things good and needful will be given their proper attention at the appropriate time. We enter a refreshing balance and equilibrium in life."
Multi-tasking chases away balance and equilibrium. As we engage in it, it fragments us into the texting self, the TV-watching self, the vaguely-conversing-with-spouse self, all rolled into one. "Unhurried serenity" can't dovetail with a scattered life full of ongoing attention-splitting.
If it's soul unity we're after, we must solo-task. We must say no to the competing second (and third) activity, surrendering what we're doing to God and trusting his sufficiency for every moment. This is the integrated, peace-filled life. It's what Jesus died to bring us. It's the life I want.
I'm still working through what it means to embrace solo-tasking. Am I replacing my laptop with a desktop, tossing my smart phone, quitting Facebook? No. But I am striving to minimize multi-tasking, deliberately saying no to the second task. This is easier said than done, all the more because of the addictive nature of chronic multi-tasking. Unwiring attention-hopping habits, ingrained at the brain level, takes practice and discipline. But Jesus is in the business of bringing freedom, and he's more than equal to the challenge.
Here are the strategies that have borne the most fruit for me.
1. Intentionally harness self-control.
Churchill famously said, "I have taken more out of alcohol than it has taken out of me." I want to be able to say the same about media and technology. Modern connectivity and efficiency are fantastic tools—when we fully rule the tools, and keep them from even remotely ruling us.
Using self-control with technology means being proactive, even to the point of creating hurdles to ward off temptation. For me, this means leaving my laptop closed when I'm not sitting at my desk, re-moving the temptation to check email or hop online whenever I walk by. I also unlinked my email, Facebook, and Twitter accounts from my smartphone profile, so that accessing them is less quick and convenient. These steps helped free up my soul presence and brain space to focus on what's actually happening around me.
2. Strictly limit technology use.
The expression "morning, noon, and night" used to mean "all the time." Now morning, noon, and night—three times a day—is considered infrequent. Today all the time is literal: 24/7, every minute. And that's how often technology is open for business.
I'm going back. Engaging in media three times a day is a healthy, moderate rhythm, so I've been rebooting my default mode to that setting. I'm training myself to save up web-based activities—emails, bills, social networking, news—for those three time blocks whenever possible. I feel much less harried when I do this, and it's made me more loving toward my family and attentive to the here and now.
Paul advocates us to pursue "a life of wonder" (1 Timothy 6:11). Implementing a thrice-daily media engagement diet has shown me that technology-heavy, multi-tasking days are never days that bring wonder. But wonder moments often come on media-limited days.
3. Heed my spirit's "fragmentation cry," and let Jesus reverse it.
I notice that when I feel stressed or overwhelmed, I usually feel the urge to turn to technology and multi-tasking. It feels like a way to tackle my to-do list and mentally escape the stress I feel in the moment. But it's a false trap—I can't return to Christ-centered, integrated living using a methodology that yields scatteredness.
Instead I need to return to Christ in those moments, stilling my "many selves with the Holy Within." When a quiet prayer doesn't do the trick, something more proactive generally does: picking up my Bible or turning on a worship song. These are steps to physically turn from fragmentation and walk toward Jesus.
Multi-tasking mode is a boxed-in, frantic mindset, but Jesus breaks us out. "He led me to a place of safety; he rescued me because he delights in me" (2 Samuel 22:20). Multi-tasking can never bring us into integration and the spacious place, but Jesus can—and wants to.
Have the toddler-crying, timer-beeping, phone-ringing moments gone away? Of course not. But intentionally seeking to solo-task has noticeably curbed the torrent of life demands flowing in at any given moment; I don't feel bombarded and like I might wash away. I look my family members in the eye more often and finish my sentences—and whole conversations. Phone calls, still generally short, are more focused and less abrupt. And most of all, there's more serenity in my soul. I don't have to face the boxed-in, frantic feeling—at least not most days. I can feel Jesus alongside me, helping me breathe. That's the best part.
Susan Arico is a consultant providing strategic and program-related assistance to Christian nonprof-its. www.christianmothering.com.