Veronica Zundel looks at the lost art of ‘monotasking’ and how important it is for our relationship with God


Men can’t multitask. We all know that. It takes a woman to juggle a baby, the cooking and a phone call at the same time. It’s what we’re made for – isn’t it? So how come these days I see men multitasking all over the place: listening to music on earphones while reading a work paper on the Tube, marking homework while cooking the dinner etc? My husband used to fix electrical goods at a local charity shop, with our then three-month-old son strapped to his chest. Nowadays he watches boat-building videos on his tablet at the same time as ostensibly watching a TV programme with me (I suspect his attention is mainly on the boat building).

Where has our concentration gone?

What no one seems to be able to do these days is what I call ‘monotasking’. Our attention span is so short, our concentration and patience so limited, that we can never manage to do just one thing at a time. I’ve recently (I can’t think why I didn’t do it before) made a ‘no phones at the dinner table’ rule. I fear it is a lost cause.

Oddly my son, who at 28 is a digital native, adheres to this quite easily, but my husband lays his phone by his plate and jumps at every text message alert. What if there is someone in a plumbing crisis who needs him instantly? What if he loses a customer by not responding at once?

It all makes meal-time conversation a struggle, and we have little enough conversation at other times. As for him getting out his phone for the crossword when we are out for a restaurant ‘date’, don’t get me started…

I confess, I am as much a culprit as anyone else. I’ve made a number of train journeys recently, but can I sit and just look out of the window at the passing, and often beautiful, scenery? Can I heck as like (sorry, one of the trips was to Yorkshire). I have to be looking at Facebook on my iPad, or reading a book or drinking a coffee I’ve had delivered to my seat (it’s amazing what you can do on trains these days).

Does this matter? I think it does. Jesus talked a lot about monotasking: “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light”, he told his disciples in Matthew 6:22 (KJV). And he followed it immediately by the observation that no one can serve two masters, for either he will hate one and love the other, or the other way around. I think what he was saying was that we must be single-mindedly focused on the will of God and not distracted by other concerns: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matthew 6:33, KJV). 

Making space for quiet connection

We know that prayer, our renewable energy source for the Christian life, demands a quiet place, a designated time and full attention. We can, of course, shoot off what are often called ‘arrow prayers’ in the midst of rush and confusion, but, to seriously engage with God, we must make space and time to speak with and listen to him. But how are we to learn to do this, when in the rest of our lives we are always doing at least two things at once?

Perhaps this is why it is so important for us to go on retreat, if we are able. On a retreat, we have carved out time to be alone with God and to stand at a distance from the demands of our lives. That’s not to say it’s easy. God will not speak to us instantly  – his timetable is usually a lot emptier and slower than ours – and we may have limited capacity to tolerate silence. When we cry out to God: “Why haven’t you answered me?”, the reply may well be: “I was just thinking.” But this is precisely why we need to practise the art of monotasking in our everyday lives, so that when we do have time to give all our attention to God, we know how to.

Perhaps the age-old analogy of being in love is apposite here. When we are in love we can gaze endlessly into our beloved’s eyes and ignore everything else. Is it time to fall in love with God again? And how might we do this? Reading a single Gospel, or even a single Gospel story, might be a way to encounter Jesus afresh. Or contemplating the beauty of the world God has made. Just not both at once.