by Kathie England

Be Here Now

Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals, recently wrote a guest essay for the New York Times titled, “Stop Multitasking, No Really – Just Stop It.”

Last year I read Four Thousand Weeks, so I was not surprised by Burkeman’s challenge. To be fully present, “to just focus on what I was actually doing, one activity at a time,” Burkeman discovered was surprisingly hard.

Burkeman proposes the following challenge: “Identify the small tricks you use to avoid being fully present with whatever you’re doing and put them aside for a week or two.” He suggests that like him, you may discover that “you were unwittingly addicted to not doing one thing at a time.”

Burkeman posits that “focusing on one thing after another may be among the most crucial skills for thriving in the uncertain, crisis-prone future we all face.”

He explains that the urge to multitask is not new and research has repeatedly shown that multitasking isn’t even possible. We actually are switching our attention rapidly between different tasks without realizing it. During this rapid switching we incur cognitive costs each time we do so. He cites a study of drivers that found only 2.5 percent showed NO performance decrease when attempting two tasks at a time. The other 97.5 percent did worse on everything.

“Philosophers and spiritual teachers have long understood that the urge to avoid giving ourselves fully to any single activity goes deeper to the core of our struggles as finite human beings.” Burkeman’s book explains that most humans live about 4000 weeks (a little less than 80 years). He calls us to embrace our finitude, our limited time on this planet. Embracing our finitude means we realize “there will always be many more things we could do than we ever will do.”

Burkeman explains that the attraction of multitasking offers the “false promise that we might somehow slip the bonds on finitude.” If we just learn the latest time management tricks, we will finally “get on top of everything.”

“The uncomfortable truth is that the only way to find sanity in an overwhelming world – and to have any concrete effect on the world – is to surrender such efforts to escape the human condition and drop back down into the reality of our limitations.”

He refers to Peter Drucker’s explanation in his book The Effective Executive that the most effective people do only one thing at a time. In following that practice, we pour our “finite time, energy and attention into a handful of things that truly count.”

Burkeman urges us to develop the new ability to “be here now.” It’s “realizing I could only ever be here now anyway – so I might as well give up the stressful struggle to pretend otherwise.”

Are you brave enough to confront your finitude and try the challenge Burkeman proposes in the third paragraph of this post?

How might you embrace your finitude and “be here now”?