Order entails clear boundaries, just as Hashem first created heaven and earth and then brought order by separating light and darkness, the waters above and the waters below, seas and dry land, defeating the forces of chaos. We reenact this ordering process every week in havdalah, separating Shabbat from the days of the week, and lifting them both above the chaos around us.
One of the distinct expressions of chaos in our day is multi-tasking. I wouldn’t claim that this is always a bad practice. My wife, Jane, helps get our seven-year-old granddaughter Orli off to school in the morning after her mother leaves for her job as a teacher. Once Jane started working on Orli’s hairdo while she was finishing breakfast, and Orli wailed, “I hate it when you multi-task!” But such multi-tasking helped save time on a busy morning. Likewise, during your down time it might be okay to check out your friends’ FaceBook postings during the breaks in a football game on TV. But it wouldn’t be okay to do your email while sitting in a class or meeting and pretending to take notes.
Order requires focus, as R. Mendel writes, “One should be extraordinarily careful not to allow himself to become confused and must condition himself to focus all of his attention on what he is doing at that moment.” We lose focus when we encounter disorder and clutter in our physical world, when we have to search frantically for the car keys, or shuffle through our papers to find a receipt or a set of notes. Conversely, our lack of focus creates disorder, as I’ve learned over years of forgetting to put the car keys in their specified spot as soon as I walk in the house, and before I shift my attention to other pursuits. The more possessions, the more options, the more choices we have, the harder it is to maintain our focus. Order requires focus, and multi-tasking is often about avoiding focus. The boundary between multi-tasking and old-fashioned distraction is often hard to define.
Focus means making a separation between the one thing I am doing at the moment and the chaos of all things that I don’t really need to do, or cannot do, at the same time. So here’s a practical exercise to increase focus.
Every day this week, eliminate at least one area of multi-tasking from your life. If you like to make phone calls while you’re driving (with a hands-free device, of course), don’t—just drive. Or, if you browse through your email in-basket while on a long business phone call, don’t—just listen. If you think about your to-do list while finishing up your morning prayers, don’t—just pray. Record your experience in your journal, noting the things that are especially distracting. At the end of the week you can evaluate what might need to be permanently eliminated or simplified, so you can increase your focus and maintain order amidst the surrounding chaos.