Monotasking: Stop the Pile-it-on Habit

June 1, 2013    BY Claudia Cummins

I’m driving to the orchard on a soggy Saturday afternoon, listening to my favorite quiz show on public radio. A recorded message blares from the cell phone in my lap, telling me I have five more minutes to wait before I can talk to an airline reservation agent. 

A mug of milky Earl Gray tea cools in the cup holder by my side, and every few minutes I reach for a sloppy sip. All the while I offer my son a running commentary about our journey. “Look at those horsies in the field,” I sing, as I reach my arm blindly back toward his car seat, in a hopeless attempt to shove another piece of graham cracker into his mouth. 

The light ahead turns yellow, and impulsively I gun the engine so we can slip through the intersection before it turns red. Then I change my mind and slam my foot on the brake. The screech of the tires jolts me awake. “What am I doing?” I ask myself, looking first at the cell phone, then at the spilled tea, and then finally at the perplexed expression on my son’s delicate face.

Liam and I are out for an afternoon adventure to pick up a jug of cider and a peck of apples, and maybe to stop by the bookshop before heading home. We have no one to meet and no reason to be in any particular hurry. Nonetheless, my ferocious multitasking has left me breathless and frazzled. 

I snap shut the cell phone and instantly feel a little calmer. I turn off the radio and breathe a sigh of relief. I close the lid of my commuter mug, hand the rest of the cracker back to my son, and feel an immense load lift from my soul. The light turns green, I place two hands on the wheel, and settle my eyes firmly on the road ahead. 

The world grows brighter and clearer, and for the first time all day I feel truly mindful of the sights and sounds around me. I’m no longer gunning my inner engine, but instead am settling cleanly in the here and now. I resolve to stay on the lookout for other sweet spots in my day when I can practice the fine art of doing one thing at a time. It doesn’t take me long at all to discover there are many. 

When my son nuzzles in to nurse, I catch myself picking up an outdated magazine. I pause, consider the possibilities, and then toss The New Yorker on the floor. I place my hand on Liam’s lean back and sink into the sensations of the moment. My breath deepens, my muscles slacken, and I feel myself settling into an oasis of calm. The sweetness of this simple, quiet moment overwhelms me, and the recognition that I had almost trampled right over it brings tears to my eyes.

Later that evening, I settle in front of the computer to check my e-mail with a cup of tea in one hand and a sliver of rich, dark chocolate in the other. Just as I’m debating which hand to reach toward my mouth, I stop. I decide to choose just one activity—sip, chew, or surf. The jasmine tea wins, and I sit quietly in my favorite chair, my back long and straight, my cheeks moistened by the steam, and enjoy every sweet, fragrant mouthful. Another sweet and peaceful moment has stitched its way into my day. 

The next morning, I opt out of a harried attempt to simultaneously answer phone calls, throw a load of laundry into the washer, and trail behind my son in a futile attempt to maintain some sense of order in his wake. Instead, when he hands me a purple scarf and asks me to play his favorite John McCutcheon tune, I abandon my other tasks and turn on the stereo. Liam swooshes his scarf, I swirl mine, and we dance. He smiles mischievously from across the room, looks directly into my eyes, and then with a running start hurls himself into my arms. I laugh almost as hard as he does as we spin about the room, clutching each other tightly, watching our scarves dance through the air. 

With these giggles, my full-blown devotion to monotasking is born. I decide to shift into the slow lane, where the drivers aren’t weaving and swerving as they talk on the phone while listening to the radio, reaching for a sip of latte, and rummaging through their Palm Pilot. One task at a time becomes my new motto. One step at a time, one sip at a time, one breath at a time.

The first thing I notice as I pare my life down to a single task per moment is that the world grows a little quieter. I’m surprised by how much background noise I have injected into my world in the form of the droning voices on the radio, small talk on the telephone, and the endless loop of music programmed into my iPod. 

And then I notice that I’m getting more accomplished. I’m not sure whether I’m truly growing more efficient, or whether I just feel less hassled as I plow through my daily to-do list. Whichever it is, I like it. I am surprised to recognize how much frenzy and commotion I had piled into my life through my hurried ambition to get everything done at once.

I begin to understand more deeply the gift of a simple yoga practice, where we rest our awareness cleanly and compassionately on the sensations of the single stretch and deliberate breath of the present moment.

My days begin to feel a little airier and my breath feels like it’s slowing to a more leisurely pace. I feel brighter and more playful. My mind grows quieter and clearer, and my meditation practice is reborn. For the first time in months I find myself pulling my favorite poetry books off the shelf and savoring the sweet peace I find within them. A good poem, after all, can’t be appreciated when you’re on the run. You have to sit still, breathe deeply, and listen carefully in order for its magic to slip under your skin. 

As I dive a little deeper into my sip-by-sip experiment, I ask myself what lies beneath my multitasking habit. Am I so busy that I need to do four things at once? Am I afraid of the peace and quiet that comes with doing less? Do I buy into the unspoken notion that busy means I am valued and important? Or am I merely a victim of the thoughtless multitasking habit that has overtaken our go-go world? 

I’m not sure. But as I ponder these questions I am surprised to discover that beneath my ceaseless activity lies a funny combination of carelessness and greed. Somewhere, it seems, I’ve picked up a notion that more is always better. It’s as if I’m wandering through a smorgasbord, mindlessly filling my plate with salad, sweet potatoes, rice, beans, and bread, without once asking myself whether I am even hungry.

Do I need to heap more onto my life’s plate just because I can? Is more necessarily better? Are two tasks better than one? And what happens when I stop and say, “Wait, I’m full, I’m happy with just this much and no more?” 

I begin to understand more deeply the gift of a simple yoga practice, where we rest our awareness cleanly and compassionately on the sensations of the single stretch and deliberate breath of the present moment. Our mind learns to focus on the task at hand, and our impulses are slowed enough for us to examine them more closely. The yoga mat, I learn, is the perfect training ground for a mind wishing to savor the sweetness of one simple sensation at a time. 

And meditation, I decide, is an opportunity to practice the extreme edge of monotasking. What could be more basic than sitting quietly, observing the breath, and focusing on the raw ingredients of the here and now? 

Day after day, on my mat I learn that a few deep breaths and a few quiet moments of settling and softening are enough. I taste with renewed contentment the bounty of the present moment. And I begin to see more clearly that less is often more, or at the very least, less is almost always enough. 

As I continue shedding my frenzied pile-it-on habits, I begin to wonder what would happen if the whole world began to explore the “less is more” approach to daily living. What would happen to our highways, our relationships, our words, and our waistlines if we kept our hands and our minds focused on one task at a time instead of carelessly struggling to juggle it all? 

Whether it’s downward-facing dog, an evening commute, or a few moments with a loved one—our world would instantly grow happier, kinder, softer, and saner.

My hunch is that many of us have become such habitual multitaskers that we’ve forgotten how to slow down. We’re so used to gulping that we barely remember how to sip. But my guess is also that if each of us devoted a few minutes each day to focusing our attention cleanly and clearly on one single task—whether it’s downward-facing dog, an evening commute, or a few moments with a loved one—our world would instantly grow happier, kinder, softer, and saner. 

Life is busy, and I want to be flexible and adaptable enough to know how to juggle a phone call, a load of laundry, and a looming deadline with finesse when I’m in a crunch. But when the afternoon ahead promises to be full of blue sky and easy breathing, I want to be able to shake the need to pile ever more onto my plate and then return to mindfully taking one step at a time. I want to move slowly and deliberately enough to enjoy each step, every breath, and each sweet and spicy mouthful of Earl Gray tea—one sip at a time.

Claudia Cummins
Claudia Cummins lives, writes, and teaches yoga in Mansfield, OH.

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