be present

The failure of multi-tasking

I realised I had a problem when I slipped and fell into a puddle of vomit. Yes, a puddle of vomit. On the street. In broad daylight. A man enjoying his pint in the pub opposite even gave me a wave of encouragement as he watched the whole scene play out.

I was on my phone, eagerly responding to a message on whatsapp, and in doing so was taking little care as to where and what I was walking into. I was trying to multi-task, save time, be efficient and engaging. I ended up failing in all areas; I didn’t respond to any follow up messages for a while and spent the night trying to remove all trace of someone’s bile off my mental and physical existence.  Rather interestingly, this was an experience I didn’t seem to think worthy enough to share online.

Since this little incident, I have increasingly become aware of how the art of multi-tasking can manifest into a disease.

It manifests in the form of people taking their phones into the bathroom, snapchatting about their day whilst in the company of loved ones to post on social media to absent acquaintances, sitting with one group of friends while whatsapping another group online at the same time, disrupting moments of ‘in real life’ connection to ‘just check something online’, texting while driving, taking selfies at funerals and phone screens being the first and last things eyes are opened and closed to.

We have lost the ability to just sit and think and be present; to stand at the bus stop and just wait for the bus, to sit at the dinner table and just eat, to engage with the people we are sitting with and not rely on online communication to have difficult conversations, to focus on a task without reaching out for the phone every minute to check notifications and to experience a beautiful thing without having to share every last detail about it.

With this, we lose so much more than we gain. I even argue that this phenomena has purported a loss of self respect and dignity, both to ourselves and the people we engage with. For instance, we give natural processes like waking in the morning, eating and relieving oneself no thought and in that, forget to reflect on the gratitude that we are able to do all three. In Islamic tradition, we know that the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) would physically turn his whole self to face somebody when talking to them, and it is considered rude to give your back to someone when sitting in a gathering so as to not isolate them. How does this then translate to our use of technology (phone, PC, TV) with others around.

Technology has also increased the ability and capacity to gossip, mock and talk about others and perhaps most interestingly provide access to information that really is none of one’s business. We are stuck on WhatsApp groups debating topics of little value and having to have an opinion on everything. We no longer need physical company to witness ill talk or contribute to it, and this ease of idle chat should concern us.

Of course, technology is not all bad. Positive relationships can blossom and strengthen online and bonds of kinship be maintained, particularly long distances. There is a wealth of knowledge on the internet and the occasional viral image or video shared can ignite a sense of hope or joy in the world. However, there is something really special about being able to take a step back, breathe deeply, wake up to the sound of birds and think, and reflect and be present. To have the space with no distractions and online noise to make your mind up about something, to give each person you meet their due and to consciously live out each action with intent and purpose.


In case you need some ideas on how to limit bad habits of multi-tasking and technology use, I found the below really helpful:

  • Don’t touch your phone in the morning. Purchase an alarm clock. Reaffirm your intentions and plans for the day. I usually don’t switch my phone on until I get on my train on the way to work.
  • Don’t take your phone to the bathroom, reflect on what kind of respect this is showing towards the person you are talking to (disclaimer, I have included this step for the benefit of others, just to make clear this bad habit is not one of mine!).
  • Put your phone out of sight when meeting friends or sitting at the dinner table.
  • Mute your notifications for WhatsApp. Some groups may generate a lot of noise and conversation that you don’t need notifications about.
  • Tell people you will be unavailable and then switch your phone off at least 15 minutes before you go to sleep.

I realise these seem like really basic tips, but found that they have really made a difference personally.