Relearning how to mono-task

Lessons from a 4-year-old in the age of multitasking

It’s Friday night after work, and I come home with projects on my mind.

There’s homework to be done for Monday. Lessons to get ready for Tuesday. Freelance assignments for the weekend. Not to mention the social media postings of my day job that never end.

My brain is buzzing with stuff to do.

My 4-year-old son, Xavier, doesn’t care about any of this. He wants to play.

Tonight, this means facing off on the kitchen floor and smashing matchbox cars into each other. Over and over and over again.

Xavier is relentless. Jess Cigelske has been dealing with him all day while she gets her own work done. Now it’s my turn.

All I think about is my to-do list as I get pulled into colliding toy cars.

Then I hear the words of Brother Phap Hai, who I’ve been writing about a lot lately. He says that for every hour of study, we need 7 hours of practice. Learning is meaningless without doing.

So now’s the time to put my money where my mouth is. I can read and write about mindfulness, but can I practice it when it matters?

I try to put myself in Xavier’s mindset. He’s not worried about anything else except for this moment. Right now, playing cars is the only thing that exists in the world.

“What a challenge this is for us in our modern society where we put such a value on multitasking, of not ‘wasting a single second,’” Brother Phap Hai writes. “Consciously choosing to do one thing at a time has become the ultimate countercultural and revolutionary act.”

Brother Phap Hai says that children are experts in mono-tasking. Adults have to re-learn that skill.

“In one sense, developing meditative concentration is about relearning how to mono-task,” he writes. “Whether we’re walking, sitting, standing, or whether we’re with others, we are fully present, mind and body. We have arrived.”

Thirteen years ago, I typed up a sentence I found in Outside Magazine and taped it behind my computer monitor:

“Multitasking only means you’re doing several things poorly.”

The passage came from an article called “Shattered” by Mark Jenkins about what it’s like to re-discover yourself after an injury:

Any injury worth the time will slow you down. Precisely what we all desperately need. An injury will make you do one thing at a time. You’ll re-remember that multitasking only means you’re doing several things poorly. Injured, you must focus on one thing for it to happen at all. With this singularity of focus comes happiness, for you have been released from distraction, the most corrosive disease of 21st-century life.

That was written in 2005, a completely different era before smart phones and social media. Back then email seemed like the ultimate distraction.

Today, it’s easy to blame the phone for being the root of all distractions. But it’s not really the phone’s fault. It’s our own mind. We have control over that.

So I think about mono-tasking while bashing toy cars against each other. Xavier exhibits the same delight each time the cars collide, as if he’s seeing this happen for the very first time.

I struggle to relax and ease into it. My mind is still racing with my weekend to-do list.

But like anything else, after awhile you get into a routine and start to get absorbed in the task at hand. You’ve arrived in the present rather than being taken for a ride to another time or place.

And I start to see the world a little bit more like a 4-year-old.

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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