Thursday, 19 May 2011

"national do one thing at a time" day

This past Monday, Jian Ghomeshi (CBC Radio, "Q") declared it "National One Thing At A Time" day.

As a woman, I think I'm expected to be a good multi-tasker. But I'm not. When I bake something, I frequently forget about it the minute I put it in the oven. This has resulted in many burnt offerings and disappointments. Thank goodness for loud oven timers. And if you arrive a bit early and I'm still trying to work out the timing of everything needed for our lovely meal? Well, watch out - my attention to you (a good thing) will result in over- and under-cooked food for our bellies (a bad thing).

I'm easily distracted. I can go to the laundry room with the intent of putting in a load of laundry and returning DIRECTLY to my writing (which is my day job right now). But then I see an area that could be tidied, or read an interesting article on the back of a Cheerios box, or find a box of letters that I think I must sort NOW.

I need to tell myself "NO! Not right now, Rebecca!" and force myself to leave the scene.

I know that I can accomplish a lot when my focused is narrowed to one singular task. And I know that I can find more joy and enjoyment when I'm just thinking about one thing at a time. My mind starts to worry when it's flitting from one thing to the next. This Zen proverb speaks to me out of its simplicity:
When walking, walk. When eating, eat.
Or this Italian one:
Often he [or she] who does too much does too little.
Or this one:
If you chase two rabbits, both will escape. 
Speaking of 2 rabbits, there are 2 lovely backyard bunnies who entertain us some mornings. Here is one:
I tried to get both in one photo, but couldn't - so I focused on one!
But I digress - this post is not about rabbits. It's about focus.

OK. I get it. I have a monkey mind, often jumping from one thing to the next. I have to be intentional and try really hard to tune out the noise sometimes. It's about focusing on certain (positive, helpful) thoughts and comments, and letting go of the rest.

For me, focus is also about priorities. I need to resist the temptation to do more. I need to resist the temptation to consume more. To have less, do less, and then magically have more - more time, more space, more room for surprises. And sometimes it means choosing to focus on what gives me life - spending time with family and friends, creating music & artwork & gifts & food for others and with others, and having a wee bit of quiet time too.

This great article speaks about the price we pay when we multitask - particularly what our brains look like "on computers." The bursts of information through e-mail, phone calls, text messages, etc. is re-wiring our brains. Research shows that heavy multitaskers experience more stress, fractured thinking, and lack of focus.

I want to practice unitasking - to train my mind to have a singular focus. Not for the whole day, certainly - and maybe not even for one whole hour. But to be where I am, concentrated on one task at a time.

This text speaks to me of focus, and of paring back - having less to have more:
Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Luke 12:32-34)
I want my heart/treasure to be focused where it matters. Sometimes this will be on mundane tasks, and often on life-giving ones. I find that lists help me focus on work and mundane tasks. But do I need lists to focus on the important ones too? Like being fully present (and not scrolling through a list in my head) when a child is telling me a VERY long story?

Anyone have a good pattern for purse-making - ones that don't wear out? I may be up for a sewing project soon. OK. Getting off-track again.

How do you focus on one thing at a time, or on what really matters?


  1. Carol Penner gave a great sermon on multi-tasking last year, complete with mutliple Cat in the Hat references and a reflection on what she found when she googled "Mennonite" and "multi-tasking":
    It was in a series of excellent sermons about how technology shapes our spiritual lives. But that one was about multitasking in general, and the issue of focus.
    As a stay-at-home dad I'm finding that a glass of wine is almost the only path I'm finding to uni-tasking...not a healthy pattern to develop though. I'm looking for alternatives.

  2. I just read her sermon. Wonderful! I love the idea of the Cat in the Hat as the ultimate multi-tasker. Pass on my thanks to Carol!

    And add yoga to your uni-tasking list - are you still doing that? Deep breaths - something good to remember at any point in the day, and helps to re-focus (sometimes, anyway). Or it might go like this: yell at misbehaving child or husband, take a deep breath, re-focus, apologize for bad behaviour, have a time-out in room.

  3. Funny, Rebecca - the chain of events in your response to Jonathan! So true sometimes.

    I have always thought of multi-tasking as being a positive trait, something I strive towards being able to do well. An interesting twist on the way I approach my days. Hmmm.

    How do I focus...a deep breath, drop my shoulders, a glance towards the sky or out the window. But this only seems to work for a moment. Usually my mind jumps from one crazy thought to the next. Wine is a yummy way to cool down at the end of a long day. I might just pour myself a glass.

  4. Multitasking and unifocus. Man - Rebecca - you sure know what's on my mind!!!
    As a teacher, I have found, you have to multitask. It just doesn't work if you don't. It's about being efficient, and finding out how many things you can widdle(sp?) away at in one trip. I feel like I do that everywhere!!!! I think you're right. We have to add the quiet moments, or time on the list to complete a task entirely. When I was digging out the garden yesterday (SO TEDIOUS - because the grass had completely taken over - it looked like an abandoned lot....) I found myself distracted by so many things and now it is only half finished. ( when am I going to get to report cards... I really should clean the bathroom... O.K Jonah, we can bike to the frog pond in 20 minutes... boy I sure would love to see juicy tomatoes here in a month or two....)
    I wonder if I will have the willpower to unitask this afternoon?
    Thanks for the blog, Rebecca - when I am reading it , it helps me to take 5 minutes to ground myself again...
    (and hey - if you figure out some tricks for unitasking - let me know!!!)

  5. Melissa Bollinger22 May 2011 at 09:55

    Rebecca, I love this post and feel very drawn to the elements of slowing down and focusing on one thing at at time. I too seem to have a monkey brain. Last week, however, Jonathan presented me with a bowl of homemade coffee ice cream when I got home. I sat down with thoughts and lists flitting all over the place, and the moment I had a bite everything stopped... all thoughts stopped, all lists disappeared, and the only thing that existed was this one unbelievable mouthful of ice cream. It's seems silly, but I felt a calm and peace and joy - sinking into this one wonderful moment. Granted, ice cream makes it somewhat easy to do so; how do I become more mindful in other, less ecstatic moments?

  6. rachel - I know how that is - especially when you have one beautiful day on the weekend, and there are so many possibilities of how to spend that time! I loved gardening on Saturday, and found my mind could wander as I dug, planted, watered, but I felt focused - or I forced focus. Sometimes I would think "Oh! I could do this or that!" but I forced myself to put that out of my brain. Felt so good at the end of the day to be hot, sore, and dirty. AND it helped that our kids were totally occupied with neighbour children the whole afternoon - so no begging to go to the frog pond :)

  7. oh! And Shauna and Rachel - yes, definitely - multitasking is a must at times (like teaching! and day to day life!) and a good thing, just maybe not something I want to try to do ALL the time. I leave too many projects unfinished because I flit from one thing to the next too easily.

    Melissa - funny this recurrence of wine, and now food - I can see how ice cream would just take you into another space. Chocolate works for me as well. But we don't want to indulge in wine, chocolate or ice cream whenever we need to focus on one thing... so the question remains, as you put it: "how do I become more mindful in other, less ecstatic moments". Bon question.

  8. Rebecca, since reading this post I have really tried to just be in the moment on a more regular basis. Moments I have enjoyed...nursing Erik, 'just' nursing - looking at my son who is growing up oh so fast and enjoying him - rather than nursing while reading, talking on the phone, making to do lists, emailing, thinking about what to do next - just nursing and savouring this time in our life together. Thanks for the reminder to slow down & enjoy the moment. :)

  9. Shauna - yay! This afternoon, after the lawn was mowed, I just sat. Sat and listened to the birds, felt the breeze, and just sat. This is hard for me, and I thought "When's the last time I did this - just sat and enjoyed my back yard?" I have no clue.

  10. Hi Rebecca! I am enjoying your blog. I know a number of people who have personalities that are oriented towards uni-tasking. And for women like that, they are often apologetic about it, and see it as a character flaw. But maybe it's a gift...there is something great about being able to live in the moment, and enjoy it. Multi-tasking can be a handicap. Oh, and thanks for reading my sermon!

  11. Carol, I'm glad you've made your sermons available in this way. I always hear rave reviews about your speaking - things that stick for months on end - so I'm happy I get to read them now too.

    Yes, I agree - uni-tasking can be a gift if you use it! It's so easy to strive towards constant multi-tasking until it really burns you out.

  12. Too funny. I sat down to listen to the audio clip and as soon as I had pressed play I opened up my email. I need to (re)learn how to focus. I find that I'm able to accomplish a lot and stay focused with the egg timer set for 10 or 15 minutes.

  13. It amazes me how focused our kids can be. I need to relearn too, Tanya, and some of my best teachers in the focusing area are little kids. They can be so focused that tantrums can ensue when you try to re-focus them and move on to another activity!

    I like the egg timer idea too.