The Art of the Single Task — UUS:E Virtual Worship, January 30, 2022


Spirit of Life, Precious and Loving God,

Source of breath, of movement, of feeling, of insight,

Come unto us as we come unto you.

Settle us, quiet us, calm us, slow us down, focus us.

May our lives, in this moment, be simple like winter, like snow, blanketing everything, covering everything, soft, cold, still; so radically different from spring’s green rebirth, summer’s rising, lush heat, autumn’s crisp, fiery splendor.  Like winter’s frozen landscape may we, in this moment, be free from distraction, free from information flooding relentlessly to us, free from the need—the expectation, the pressure—to accomplish, to achieve, to produce, to check items off our lists.

In this winter moment may we be simply present. Not idle, but engaged only in the task before us—no other. May our focus on the single task blend our spirits with winter, so that we match its quiet, its calmness, its slowness. May our focus on the single task open that window through which we reach the cool, sustaining water beneath the ice; that window through which we catch a glimpse of the sacred and know ourselves to be held in its embrace.

In this winter moment may we be simply present, focused only on the task before us.

Amen and blessed be.

The Art of the Single Task
Rev. Josh Pawelek

One morning during the winter of 1846, Henry David Thoreau woke in his cabin on Walden Pond in the woods south of Concord, Massachusetts. After greeting the morning and taking in the beauty of what he named “dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live,” he began his day. He wrote:

“Then to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if that be not a dream. After a cold and snowy night it needed a divining-rod to find it. Every winter the liquid and trembling surface of the pond, which was sensitive to every breath, reflected every light and shadow, becomes solid to the depth of a foot or a foot and a half, so that it will support the heaviest of teams, and perchance the snow covers it to an equal depth, and it is not to be distinguished from any level field…. I cut my way first through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”[1]

As much as Thoreau is describing a work task—opening a window in the ice to obtain drinking water—he’s also describing a mystical, spiritual experience. Peering into the window he encounters “a perennial, waveless serenity.” He witnesses Heaven “under our feet.” It’s not an extraordinary experience. He isn’t deep in prayer or meditation. He isn’t on a pilgrimage to some distant, holy shrine. It’s an ordinary experience. He’s engaging in a daily task.

How often does this happen to you? Engaged in a simple task, you are suddenly transported, swept up by a waveless serenity, a sense of calmness, tranquility, peace of mind. You apprehend Heaven close by. In words we heard earlier from the Rev. Mark Belletini, the curtain is pulled back, “revealing the table set with the feast of life / which is present here and now.”[2] How often does this happen to you?

For most of us, I suspect, it doesn’t happen very often, if at all; though I contend it can happen to us much more often than it does. We can have a more spiritual experience of daily life. And to start exploring how that is possible, let’s notice what isn’t happening while Thoreau is opening a window in the ice. For example, while he’s cutting his hole, he is not also reading the newspaper or a book. Similarly, he is not discussing current events with a friend. He is not fishing, though there are fish to catch. He is not lighting a fire and cooking his breakfast. He certainly is not watching television, listening to the radio, his favorite podcast or his latest Spotify playlist. He isn’t getting children ready for school—making lunches, checking backpacks to verify all homework is where it’s supposed to be, watching the clock to avoid missing the bus. He isn’t also walking the dog, feeding the cats, warming up the car, reviewing the day’s work schedule, or grabbing fifteen minutes for a quick yoga routine. He certainly isn’t also glancing at his phone with every beep, click or buzz: checking his emails, texts, voicemails, playing online Candy Crush or whatever his current gaming addiction happens to be. He definitely isn’t falling down the social media rabbit hole, commenting on his friend’s cat video, sharing his parents’ anniversary photos, anxiously checking the number of likes his post on last night’s rabbit stew has received, or tweeting out to his followers the narrative of his mundane life, “down on the pond cutting ice in search of water,” #alottasnow, #justsawheaven, #stayhydrated.

My point? He is not multitasking. He is doing one, simple task. Perhaps it was easier in his time, especially in the context of his world-renowned experiment is solitary living on Walden Pond. Nevertheless, in our era when multitasking seems—and sometimes is—an unavoidable societal expectation, a necessary condition for getting through the day and accomplishing everything we have to accomplish, it feels critical to our spiritual health and well-being to learn and practice the art of the single task. Engaging in the single task may be our most reliable—and quite ordinary—pathway to that waveless serenity, that apprehension of heaven under our feet, that more spiritual experience of daily living.

As a reminder, our ministry theme for January is living with intention. I can’t think of a better (and perhaps more fun) way to explore this theme than to talk about the myth of multitasking, and to urge all of us to learn and practice the art of the single task.

I don’t know when the term ‘multitasking’ came into vogue. I have not looked into that particular history. I suspect it emerged in part as middle class women were entering the American workforce in droves in the final third of the 20th-century, yet were typically still expected to perform the domestic tasks associated with the traditional female gender role—cooking, shopping, cleaning, child-rearing. Now holding 9-5 jobs outside the home, in order to complete all those household responsibilities, women had to multitask. I wouldn’t be surprised if the term first showed up in women’s magazines in the 1970s. Again, I am speculating, but it seems plausible to me that a concept like multitasking would emerge in response to a big shift in national employment patterns, partly as a way to appease men who may not have appreciated the various implications of women entering the workforce. Sir: your home-life won’t change. Women can multitask. Again, I’m speculating. I wouldn’t be surprised.

The concept of multitasking was ubiquitous in the early 2000s.  At that time it was riding the coattails of the personal computing revolution. Even then, on most computers you could open multiple windows at the same time—your Word doc, email, internet browser, spreadsheet, calendar. It’s all right there, a keystroke away. A long way from Thoreau opening a window in the Walden ice. You can work on everything at the same time. You can multitask. Very efficient. Very productive. Multitaskers were the new super-people.

And if we thought computers were remarkable aids to multitasking then, we had no idea what was coming. As I am preparing this sermon, I am working on my laptop. I’ve got some Word docs open—this sermon, the order of service, my newsletter column (which I’ve already handed in); some notes for an upcoming book discussion. My email inbox is open. A number of tabs are open in Google Chrome, including a map of Concord, MA showing Walden Pond, an online thesaurus (because I wanted a few words to go with ‘serenity’), and Tema Okun’s new website discussing the characteristics of white supremacy culture which I hope to study later in the day. Next to my laptop is my phone, which has the New York Times and the Hartford Courant open, my voice mail messages, texts and email (so now can choose whether to glance at messages on multiple devices). I’ve got easy access to Words With Friends, Scrabble, and Wordle (because I need to take head breaks from time to time—at least that’s what I tell myself). I’ve also got my calendar, my contacts, the weather, CovidActNow Connecticut data, not to mention Facebook (do they want us to call it Meta?), Facebook Messenger (because a lot of people just prefer to communicate with me there), Twitter and Instagram (which I don’t use, but they’re there nevertheless), Pandora if I want to listen to music (I can’t get enough of that Black Pumas song, “Colors,” from the Target commercial a few months back), and a virtual compass, mainly because I think it’s cool, but you never know when you’re gonna need your true north! Those are just the app I have open! I am the king of multitasking! So efficient. So productive. Yes!

No! Of course, not. Multitasking is a myth. I’ve named this before from this pulpit, probably multiple times.  It’s common knowledge. I won’t share the scientific data now—it’s easy enough to find if you’re curious. The bottom line is that the human brain really can’t focus attention on more than one activity at a time, unless one of those activities is so deeply ingrained in you that it requires no thought whatsoever. Otherwise, we can try to accomplish multiple activities at the same time—people make the attempt all day every day—we can open as many windows on our devices as we want—but when we try to do two things simultaneously, the quality of our activity suffers. When we think or say we’re multitasking, what we’re really doing is jumping quickly from one task to the other, or from task to task to task, which psychologists call ‘serial tasking.’ And more often than not, we’re jumping to a new task because it distracted us from the task we were doing. We may believe we’re being highly productive when in fact we’re in a state of near-constant distraction. Quality suffers.

And we suffer mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In a 2019 post at the website “RescueTime,” editor Jory MacKay cites a range of studies that show how multitasking negatively impacts working memory, increases anxiety, inhibits creative thinking, causes sleep disorders, results in more mistakes and, most significantly for me, prevents us from entering a state of flow.[3] MacKay describes flow as a highly productive state of sustained focus. She’s talking about it primarily from a business perspective. Yet, it feels akin to Thoreau’s ‘waveless serenity,’ a calm, clear state, an experience of one’s work or daily living as spiritual.

Which brings me to the art of the single task. Granted, our lives are such that there are times when we must attempt to accomplish multiple tasks at once. Working, volunteering, raising children or grandchildren, managing a household – often these things overlap; often there is more that has to happen in a day than can possibly fit into a day. Nevertheless, can we learn to live our lives doing one thing at a time? The answer, of course, is yes. That’s how our brains actually work. But it may not come easily due to the prevalence of distraction and widespread societal expectations that we will be highly productive. Learning the art of the single task takes practice, discipline, intention.

Our friends at Soul Matters (who provide our theme-based ministry resources) offered a great exercise for us to get started. They challenged us: pick one thing you usually do while multitasking and, when it’s time to do it, do it alone, each day for a week! An obvious place to start, they wrote, “is eating. Pick one meal a day and do nothing but eat. No watching TV at the same time. No checking your email as you chomp down. Just intentionally eat and focus on your food…. Some of us [might] choose to do a chore without our usual distraction of listening to a podcast [or the radio] while washing the dishes or sweeping the floor…. When you walk the dog, just do that…. You get the point…. [Pick] one thing you will do each day for a week.”

It’s a remarkably simple suggestion. But given the complexity of our world, given the incredible and distracting flood of information coming at us constantly, given the power of our devices—the number of windows we can open at any one time—given the many and varied responsibilities we hold as members of families, communities, congregations, as employees, students, advocates and activists, perhaps this simple suggestion, this return to fundamentals, this effort to engage the world as our bodies are designed to engage it, is the most radical thing we can do for our own mental, emotional and spiritual health.

Take this challenge with you into your week. Develop your art of the single task. Cut through your foot of snow. Cut through your foot of ice. Open only one window at a time. Surely drinkable water awaits. Surely moisture, sustenance, nourishment await. That state of flow awaits. With practice, with intentionality, who knows what we will encounter? A waveless serenity? Heaven under our feet? I wouldn’t be surprised. Take the challenge. Develop your art of the single task.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Thoreau, Henry David, Walden or Life in the Woods (New York: A Signet Classic from the New American Library, 1960) p. 189.

[2] Belletini, Mark, “Slower and Slower,” in Sonata for Voice and Silence (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008) p. 12.

[3] MacKay, Jory, “The Myth of Multitasking: The Ultimate Guide to Getting More Done By Doing Less,” at RescueTime: Blog, January 17, 2019. See: I also found this article helpful: Taylor, Jim, “Technology: The Myth of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, March 30th, 2011. See: