Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Multi-tasking and Doing One Thing at a Time


“I’m multi-tasking,” I’d hear people say proudly. I wondered what they meant, because it looked more like they were going from one task to another, then back to the first task, where at any time, they weren’t doing multiple things together, but that they were shuffling, and perhaps, juggling, multiple things.

An article from the Harvard Business Review mentioned how one’s IQ level decreased when multi-tasking. A subsequent article proposed how you can get other people to disengage from multi-tasking to avoid being the victim of your colleagues’ decline in quality of work due to their multi-tasking.

On the other hand, the advocates of “one thing at a time” can sound pollyanna-ish, in this world of too many gadgets, emails, long work hours, and, “what do you mean: life-work balance!?”. Whether you are rich or poor, young or old, we’ve all got 24 hours in a day. How can you fit everything without multi-tasking?

Three “epiphanies” I had when exploring what “one thing at a time” meant:

  1. You don’t have to fit everything in a day.
  2. You can make multiple things be one thing, and therefore,
  3. Doing one thing at a time and multi-tasking, can become the same thing, with mindfulness.

If you can’t bring all of yourself to a task, trying to do more at the same time only helps you accomplish more things poorly (which may create more mistakes you have to go back and fix later). If in doing one thing at a time, you can’t finish all the things in a day (who does finish all the things they wanted to do in a day anyway, with multi-tasking or not?), perhaps we have too many non-essential things on our list. I see “one thing at a time” to be a reminder to prioritize my list and focus my attention on what is really important, then elevate them to bringing all of myself to them.

It isn’t enough to think about doing one thing a day as a restriction against doing multiple things at a time. The motivation behind it is more important. When people perform at a lower level when multi-tasking, they aren’t able to bring all of themselves to these multiple tasks. Doing one thing at a time can facilitate you to bring all of yourself to the task (though it isn’t guaranteed), which is why the Japanese make a big fuss about receiving a gift with both hands to show you are fully there appreciating the giver’s generosity.

But of course we do multiple things at any given time. We are breathing while walking and talking to a friend besides you. My friend who loves to dance was struggling to learn the more formal dances like the waltz. His teacher would ask him to mind his posture, and when he did, he would forget his steps. When he concentrated on getting his footing correct, his posture got compromised. He was trying to multi-task. But when he danced the salsa which he was familiar with, he was minding his posture and his footings equally well. He wasn’t multi-tasking: he’s practiced the dance form so much that these individual “tasks” became one. His body had internalized the techniques for the arms, the back and the feet which were united under the conductor that was the rhythm.

With practice and mindfulness, some multiple tasks can be one, a step towards extending oneself to be one with the world around us.

Photo: The Old Olden Church in Olden, Norway

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This entry was posted on September 12, 2015 by in Buddhism, Culture, Management, mindfulness and tagged , .
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