When was the last time you single-tasked? When was the last time you did one thing, just ONE thing, at a time? I’ll be the first to admit that my answer is…. maybe… never? While I write this, I’m also sipping my tea, roasting dinner in the oven, shopping for jeans, brainstorming gifts for Easter baskets, and supervising my kids. Hold on — someone just got punched in the face — I’ll be right back.
So: I probably don’t need to point out just how fragmented our modern lives are. We all know just by glancing at the number of tabs open our computer that we are virtually incapable of completing a single task without trying to accomplish a dozen others along the way. The Atlantic’s James Hamblin suggests we try a “Tabless Thursday” as a way to train ourselves to focus on just one tab, or one task, at a time, and become fully present. (He’s kind of making a joke, but like most jokes, it’s funny because it’s true).
What do we gain by focusing on a single task, by being fully present in the moment? For one, it enables us to do something well. Author Ann Patchett explained recently in a segment on PBS New Hour that her secret to learning to bake a cake successfully was to give it her full attention.
“Baking turned out to be a lesson in what we used to call reading comprehension,” Patchett says. “I hadn’t been paying attention to the text, which might have been because I was talking on the phone while folding the wet and dry ingredients, or I was folding the laundry while running the mixer, or making a note to myself in the margins of the cookbook to write a piece about cakes.”
But when Patchett devoted herself to the single task of baking, the cake came out perfectly.
Baking a cake strengthens our ability to focus, but reading a book does too, she goes on to say: “like baking, reading books can be the antidote to fragmentation and distraction.” This ability to focus for long periods of time is essential not only to our baking endeavors but also to our relationships — with our spouses, our children, and our friends.
Who wants to engage in a deep conversation with someone who sporadically glances at his or her phone? Someone who is physically present but mentally cataloguing a list of to-dos? Not me. And I certainly don’t want to be that person either, although in reality I’m just as guilty of this as anyone.
Whatever I choose to do, I want to do it well: whether it is parenting my children, connecting with my spouse, or writing an email. So if this requires a more single-minded focus — “monotasking” as I’ve seen it termed — I’ll do my best to close as many tabs as I can and maybe, just maybe, get it down to one at a time.
So here’s to single-tasking, and being present in our lives. And to that end I’m sharing a few reading recommendations from this past month that have moved me, enlightened me, and entertained me… and hopefully trained me to begin focusing solely on the task at hand.
March Reading List
Idaho is the very best kind of novel in my highly subjective opinion: it feels quiet and intimate, but speaks volumes about motherhood, loneliness, love, and loss. From the very first paragraph, it grabbed me, and weeks after finishing it, it still hasn’t let me go. The novel’s central event is devastating, and the book was emotionally exhausting to read. And yet… I absolutely could not put it down. The book commanded empathy for a character who commits the worst possible act, and I felt more for her than I did for those left suffering in her wake.
When I read in the afterword that Ruskovich’s inspiration was Alice Munro, her teacher Marilynne Robinson, and her favorite book Anne of Green Gables, I understood why this novel felt like it was written precisely for me. In my next life I want to be Emily Ruskovich. And in the meantime, I’ll immerse myself in her writing, which is so beautiful it takes my breath away.
Because Wade had thrown everything away – drawings, clothes, toys – each accidental remnant loomed in Ann’s mind with unspeakable importance. Four moldy dolls buried in the sawdust of a rotten stump. A high-heeled Barbie shoe that fell from the drainpipe. A neon toothbrush in a doghouse. Then, finally, the half-finished drawing in a book. Artifacts heavy with importance they didn’t deserve, but which they took on because of their frightening scarcity; they built up against her, making stories of themselves, memories inside her head that should have remained in Wade’s.
This novel explores mothers of all kinds: those that leave, those that betray, those that protect to a fault. And at its heart is a love story so compelling that I carried my Kindle with me throughout my day, hiding in corners of the house while my children were playing so that I could sneak in a few more pages.
I read in the The New York Times that Bennett began writing the novel when she was the same age as the protagonist, 17. The novel follows her own trajectory, in part, by tracing a young black woman’s journey from Oceanside, Calif., across the country, then the world, and back to her hometown.
We would’ve told her that all together, we got centuries on her. If we laid all our lives toes to heel, we were born before the Depression, the Civil War, even America itself. In all that living, we have known men. Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more. —
The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
And sometimes we’re just not in the mood for catharsis. So here are two books that made me laugh out loud. They are quick reads, highly amusing, and also deal with some important questions about what it takes to truly connect with someone, despite our differences.
I met Rosie at the airport. She remained uncomfortable about me purchasing her ticket, so I told her she could pay me back by selecting some Wife Project applicants for me to date.
‘Fuck you,’ she said.
It seemed we were friends again.
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I’m looking for a new book! Please let me know in the comments what you recommend for April reading.