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Lenten Confessions of a Poor Multitasker

angry woman calling from the phoneI’ve never been good at doing more than one task simultaneously. As a university student I worked as a part-time secretary. My boss watched me one day as I dealt with interruptions and requests from several different people. Afterwards, she approached me with a pitying look and said, “Multitasking isn’t one of your strengths, is it?”
She was right. Whether interruptions or simultaneous requests come from people or from notifications on my computer or cell phone, I don’t handle them well. But even people who think they are good multitaskers are not doing as well as they think. Plenty of research suggests that we can’t focus on more than one thing at a time and that the constant switching between tasks may actually damage our brains. Nevertheless, my students are convinced that they can listen to music, check their Facebook page, text a friend, and take notes in class at the same time.
Worries about information overload aren’t new. In 1898, Max Nordau predicted that at the end of the 20th century there would be “a generation to whom it will not be injurious to read a dozen square yards of newspapers daily, to be constantly called to the telephone, to be thinking simultaneously of the five continents of the world, to live half their time in a railway carriage or in a flying machine, and to satisfy the demands of a circle of ten thousand acquaintances, associates, and friends” (Degeneration). This prediction proved surprisingly accurate.
At the same time, nostalgia for a slower pace of life is probably as old as civilization itself. Perhaps every new development, every new technology, from the printing press to the iPad has worried some people as much as it’s delighted others. Perhaps we are all merely longing for the simplicity of childhood, remembering the good and conveniently forgetting the bad.
I have a vivid childhood memory of whiling away Saturday afternoons on my family’s living-room sofa. Our living room boasted a crimson carpet and a black-and-white sofa with red piping (clearly not in fashion now!). I would lie on the sofa and stare at the large painting that hung above it. It was a landscape painting of a Hungarian village nestled in a valley, with tiny people and even tinier sheep going about their daily lives. I would stare at the painting for hours, allowing my mind to drift into that world, imagining the lives of each of the tiny people: Where were they going? What were their concerns? What were their relationships with one another? The seeds of the first stories I wrote were sown during these lazy Saturday afternoons when I had plenty of time to daydream.
I ask myself why I can’t do this now. Can’t I book off a Saturday afternoon to lie on my own living-room sofa and stare at a painting? In fact, I could. But my adult mind is constantly focussed on responsibilities and obligations and “shoulds”: I should call that person or pay that bill or do that errand. All desires, all impulses, must bow to the law of efficiency and productivity. How sad. No wonder I often suffer from writer’s block. I don’t let myself just sit and daydream anymore. And do children these days have these opportunities at all?
It isn’t only writers who need time to be alone with our thoughts. In his award-winning, timely book The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, Michael Harris explains, “real thinking requires retreat. True contemplation is always a two-part act: We go out into the world for a time, see what they’ve got, and then we find some isolated chamber where all that experience can be digested. You can never think about the crowd from its center. You have to judge from a place of absence.” Yet we’ve arranged our lives so that we never need to be alone with our thoughts: whether we have Twitter or Instagram or a playlist on our ever-present cell phones—or whether we just take a book with us everywhere we go—it’s easy to keep ourselves constantly distracted. As a wise friend of mine pointed out recently, is it any wonder so many of us suffer from insomnia when lying in bed at night is the only time left to think?
We’re now in the season of Lent, my favourite season in the church year, and I’m trying to slow down and allow time for self-examination, confession, and prayer. Confession is a word that conjures up scandal and salacious details: tabloids promise to reveal the secrets celebrities would rather keep hidden (not that there are many such secrets left!). Harris also writes about our “culture of public confession,” noting that our experiences don’t seem real until we’ve shared our “status” on Facebook or Twitter. But oversharing isn’t quite the same as confession.
As I prepared to write this blog post, I went to the Oxford English Dictionary with my usual sense of moral and linguistic superiority, ready to tell the world that the original meaning of confession was different from the way we use it today. Imagine my surprise to find that “to confess” comes from the Latin “confessare,” which merely means “to acknowledge, own, avow” and comes from the same root, “fari,” as “to speak.” If that’s the case, then today’s culture is indeed confessional in the oldest sense of the word.
But we don’t confess everything, do we? We’ll confess what we ate for breakfast, the difficulties of removing snow from our driveways, and what we bought on our latest shopping trip, but do we confess our wrongdoings? Do we tweet about cutting someone off in traffic or trash-talking a colleague behind his back or cheating on our taxes? No, we balk at confessing the things that tarnish our shiny public image. This is the problem, not that we need to confess these things publicly, but that our culture of public confession encourages us to think about and believe only what we want others to see.
I’m not going to confess my wrongdoings on Twitter (they’d require more than 140 characters anyway), but I will confess them to myself and to God during times of private contemplation. I do this not to beat myself up but to see my weaknesses clearly and honestly. Instead of giving up Twitter for Lent (too drastic), I’ve decided to devote the first ten minutes of every day to silent meditation instead of my usual Twitter and e-mail check. Ten minutes isn’t much, but it’s a start.

1 Comment

  1. JT

    I have such a hatred for multitasking that I wish it were outlawed. And even today, with the research in place debunking the multitasking myth, my workplace continues to ask applicants about their multitasking abilities. Why do we do this? Give the message that if you can’t multitask, then you’re not good enough for our company. Why don’t we ask prospective employees if they can do all their work while standing on one leg? Perhaps that can be done, but over time … nasty results.

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