In Praise of Mono-Tasking

When I worked as a college chaplain, one of the colleagues who impressed me most with his very earthed spirituality was our head gardener. The college had extensive grounds and plenty of work to keep Michael and his team busy, but the one thing he made sure he did every day was to place fresh flowers around the building. In this simple task, he brought colour and beauty to the place and, as a useful by-product, he brought visibility to his own team’s work and put himself in the position to bump into members of the college on a daily basis. He gave himself to this task with quiet attentiveness and unfussy concentration.

In spiritual terms, this quality could be described as ‘purity of heart’ – doing one good thing with our full attention. In fact, I think that the discipline of doing one thing well is far more demanding than the more commonly praised skill of  multitasking, of doing many things at the same time. It is very easy to be doing too many things at once. As soon as we let our minds drift to the next thing on our agenda, we have ceased to do the current thing with our full attention. This is particularly problematic when that one thing is to be present to another person.

In Zen, the daily practice of zazen schools our minds and bodies in the art of doing just one thing with our full attention, but this should never be the only thing we do in this way – it is a skill for all of life. As Jesus had it (I paraphrase!), ‘seek first the Realm of God and everything else will fall into place’. The thing we are doing right now is always the ‘one thing necessary’.