Monotasking

(This post assumes you’ve have read what I wrote last week on “Taming the Elephant” on mindfulness.)

One of the tools Thich Nhat Hanh gives for present awareness is to constantly ask yourself the question “What am I doing?” Less in the “what am I doing with my life?”-existential-kind-of-way, but more in the very literal “what am I actually doing right this instant?”

Most people, most days are not actually doing what they’re doing – we’re doing laundry but our minds are on what we need to do tomorrow at work; we’re with our friends but our minds are on what we just read this morning on the internet; we’re driving, but our minds are thinking about what happened yesterday. This mismatch makes us ghosts of the present. It looks like we’re in this particular moment, but we’re actually far away. This is so common that it’s hard to imagine it could be anything else - why would we want to be present while we’re doing laundry or driving the car? Isn’t it better to be planning, preparing and ruminating? What else is there?

The problem with not being present is it robs us of the beauty of the present moment. Always in the past and future, we miss the aliveness of the present. I think of this distracted mindset as multitasking. We think of multitasking as doing multiple things at the same time; this is the same multitasking - it’s thinking about something while doing something else: a lack of focus on the present. This multitasking builds up and over time and builds forgetfulness instead of reinforcing mindfulness.

So going back to Thich Nhat Hanh’s question, it helps to constantly ask yourself : “What am I doing?”

For me, right now I am typing. Later the answer will be “I am turning on the faucet”, “I am brushing my son’s teeth”, “I am holding a shirt while folding clothes”, “I am walking down the stairs.” Throughout a day I do hundreds, thousands of things. By actually immersing myself in the present awareness of each moment life becomes infinitely richer.

Focusing on “what am I doing” is the complete opposite of multi-tasking - it’s radical monotasking.

You’ll often hear Zen sayings such as “It’s all quite simple. When you eat, eat. When you sleep, sleep.” It’s all the same refrain - don’t multi-task. Focus on the present moment. And more radical than that, focus on *this exact moment* and not the moment in theory - in other words, the answer is not “I’m cooking.” The answer is “I’m holding this knife in my hand and I am cutting into this cucumber and I can feel, hear and see it fully.”

I’ll write more later about mindful eating which truly has been a realization for me how every meal can be a complete epiphany. The key to it is this simple - it’s just to actually eat when you’re eating. That alone is radical.

Asking this question while doing chores is a huge help to me. I now really enjoy folding clothes and doing dishes (two tasks which are very common in a house of young kids, especially post-pandemic). By asking this question, “washing dishes” in the abstract gets transformed into an awareness and gratitude for the dishes themselves, their roles in the eating process for my family, and the joy and satisfaction of maintenance. Similarly for folding clothes - if I find I’m getting annoyed at folding them it’s always because I’m not actually focused on folding them but rather trying to rush to get to the next thing. But there is no next thing - this is it! There is no future - everything is the present moment! So I take a deep breath, focus on picking up the shirt, take another deep breath and pay attention to the fabric & my motions as I fold, turning a previous begrudging chore into a gratefulness practice.

Thich Naht Hanh says, “If I don’t enjoy washing the dishes, I won’t enjoy my dessert.” This is why: to truly enjoy the dessert you need to realize the dishes are the dessert! And by doing so, you then enjoy the dessert! It’s paradoxical but true!

Where do you find yourself caught up in “habit energy” of doing many things at once? Where can you monotask?

Over time by reducing my screen time I’ve been much better about this at home, however, this is still a challenge for me at work. I often have multiple screens open. I’m in a meeting while checking email and thinking about a future meeting. The result feels like efficiency but is actually that my energy and focus drain in the background. At the end of days where I monotask more I am much more refreshed and positive than those days where I’m heavily multi-tasking. I am also more present in meetings and I can feel the difference with the people on the other side of the screen – I am more conscious and grateful of their presence which changes my entire disposition.

Multitasking provides the illusion of efficiency but it ends up wearing you down while reinforcing non-mindful habits. It’s so common we can’t see it ails us…

Take this with you into the week: “What am I doing?”