My stepmother sometimes says she’s “busier than flies on horseshit.” It’s a striking image, and I think of it once in a while when I run across someone who’s really busy. There’s an interesting question lying just under the surface when we look at how busy we are. One way to ask the question is “are we actually getting anything done?” Another way is to look at this part of our lives is “am I enjoying my work?”
When we begin to switch from one task to another, we can become a little bit more productive in the short term. We’re answering emails, talking on the phone, waiting on hold for a customer assistance specialist, or whatever. We’re busy. But are we really getting anything done? Researchers who have looked into this business have found that we can’t really “multi-task.” Instead, they find that we’re switching from one task to another really quickly. And, lucky for us, we can do it. Think of a short order cook who has to make pancakes, and eggs sunny side up, and hash, and bacon, and toast, and all the other menu items at a breakfast place. If it’s a big place, you have multiple waiters and waitresses, busboys, customers, and the boss, too! If you’re a great cook, you can get the job done. But, it’s pretty stressful. You can do it because you are switching between similar things (all the things on the griddle, for example). If you try to do more than one task that are very different, you’ll have real troubles. Imagine trying to write an email and talk coherently on the phone at the same time. It can’t be done!
I have run across people who have a hard time focusing on one task at a time… and, I think if you can’t focus on a task (a complicated one) you can’t really get anything done. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy stone carving! If you can’t focus on the stone and the chisel and the mallet, you will make mistakes. Or, if you’re cutting up an onion to cook, you have to pay attention or you’ll cut off your fingers! Nobody wants fingers in their soup!
The same secret applies to getting anything done, I think. The myth that we can effectively “multi-task” turns our to be a lie. We can pay attention to things in a series, and we can switch attention quickly between tasks, but we really can’t do two things at once. If you find yourself stressed out, maybe it’s because you’re trying to do too many things at once.
And then there’s the question of the joy of doing something. There’s something tremendously satisfying about getting something done, isn’t there?
Lately we have been working with some of our confirmation kids in our new adoration chapel at St. Paul. They’re finding a big difference between holding a flat screen and holding a circular saw. If you make a mistake with the flat screen, you probably won’t lose a finger, after all. And, you can see the satisfaction on their faces at the end of the morning! They think they did something, and they’re right.
One of the young people chose to cook instead of working with the tools. His grandpa had already shown him how to use a drill, and saws, and other tools, so he wanted to cook. This past Saturday he made chili-dogs for all the kids and volunteers (15 people), and they were great. He thinks he did something, and he did.
There are only so many minutes and hours and days in our lives. Wouldn’t it be sad to come to the end of your life and find that you were too busy to enjoy any of it? That you’d missed the satisfaction of getting something done because you were always looking to the next task. How sad would that be?