The Value of Conscious Mindfulness

by Katy on April 11, 2009 · 20 comments

pizza pan

In our society, the ability to multi-task is greatly valued. Why check e-mail, when you can also be returning phone calls? 

But when we split our attentions there’s a consequence. Each task that’s added diminishes the whole.

I was making homemade pizza for dinner last night, and had placed the pans in a preheated 450 degree oven so that the crust would come out all nice and crispy. I was employing my normal kitchen multi-tasking accessory of an audio-book, when I reached out for one the pans, now on the stovetop and burned the crap out of  all the fingertips on my left hand. 

Fu-fu-fu-fu-fu-fu!!!!!!! (My son had a friend over, and I was trying somewhat unsuccessfully to curb my language, although my husband later old me that I made a sound like a cat being stepped on.)

Forget crispy crust, I had successfully cooked up some crispy Katy!

I know I would not have made this error if my mind was not a million miles away at The Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. The audio book, although perfectly entertaining, had kept me from being fully aware of the here-and-now of my motions. (And the pain from actively grabbing a 450 degree pan almost made me miss a day of work and an entire day’s wages.)

After dinner I tucked my poor self in bed with a newly checked out library book called, The Power of Less : The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential– In Business and in Life  by Leo Babauta, who writes the blog Zen Habits. The author puts forth the idea that we cannot do anything well when our focus is split in too many directions.

It’s better to do a few things well and thoroughly, than many things poorly. 

Having just paid the consequences of this exact circumstance, this notion grabbed at me. Had I been giving my full focus to the cooking of dinner, I would not have burned my hand.

There are times when I look around me at all the household tasks that vie for my attention. And I know that to address everything at once means to pretty much do a surface-only job. So I will sometimes pick one job and give it 100% of my best efforts. I won’t clear off the dining room table, coffee table, put laundry on the line, wipe down the bathroom, etc. Instead I will micro-clean one area like the kitchen, moving everything off the counters, scrub the sink, and even get on my hands-and-knees to clean the floor. 

And by giving 100% of my focus to one area, I get the type of clean that lasts for weeks, instead of a few hours.

The concept of conscious mindfulness can spread to other areas as well. Dave Ramsey’s snowball debt reduction plan comes to mind. Instead of paying down all debts at once, Ramsey tells his followers to put complete focus on paying down one debt at a time, which creates a sense of accomplishment which is much more inspiring than paying down many different debts at once.

There are certainly areas where multi-tasking has no negative consequence. (What harm is there in listening to J.K. Rowling’s best while weeding in the garden?) But I think I learned a lesson on conscious mindfulness, and the unfortunately painful direct result of splitting one’s focus.

Are you a multi-tasker? Do you have the ability to accomplish ten things at once? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Jinger April 11, 2009 at 5:24 am

Ouch….I hope you had aloe at the ready!

I wanted to ask how you transfer your pizza to the preheated pan. I would like mine to have a crispy crust.



mari April 11, 2009 at 6:49 am

I can’t multi-task to well either. I took some advice from ,she breaks down house cleaning per week and per day. and doing one task for only 15 minutes, I seem to get alot done.


Lisa April 11, 2009 at 7:54 am

Ow! I hope your poor hand starts feeling better soon!

I heard on the radio once of a woman who was intent on multi-tasking. At 7 months pregnant, she thought it was a good idea to ride her bike while walking the dogs. The net result was 2 broken legs. Not fun.


Jay April 11, 2009 at 8:26 am

I’m retired and partially disabled but during my employment years I was a consumate multi- guy, both at work & home. I multi’d only those tasks that didn’t require my full attention. It was something that I just did by nature. In those days it was called ‘doing several things at once’. But as with your cleaning I also got great satisfaction from doing a single thing with great intensity.

Interestingly, I was discussing this subject with a friend a few days ago. In fact it was in the form of a complaint. We were chatting on the phone & it was obvious that I didn’t have her full attention. I could tell by the noises in the background that she started to do things around her house. I told her that I would rather have a 5 minute conversation and her full attention than a much longer one without it. I find this behaviour to be rude. I take into consideration that she is a bit hyper active but really it’s a lame excuse. Bye the bye, I have had several hand-burnings-on-hot-pans screw ups. but not for some years. I leave the oven mit draped over the pan as a reminder now. I found your site via the New York Times and I’m pleased to add it to my active list!!


GaryO April 11, 2009 at 8:59 am

Hey, I love leftover pizza too much.
I just finished off 2 slices of pep with onions. from Pizza Heather in Culebra… re-heated in my teflon skillet with a sprinkle of cornmeal and loose lid on top. 10mins melts the cheese and crisps the bottom, just enuf. same as a slice of life from the pizza oven.


Carol Wheeler April 11, 2009 at 10:01 am

“one cannot do anything well when our focus is split in too many directions.” Please, make your subjects agree (maybe writing should be a single task). “One” would agree with “one’s focus”; it doesn’t agree with “our focus.” Thanks.

Otherwise, I’m sure you’re totally right (except I’m not sure about any kitchen cleaning lasting for weeks, micro- or otherwise).


thenonconsumeradvocate April 11, 2009 at 11:09 am


You caught me being human. That’s what I get for writing a column at 2:00 A.M.

And the micro-cleaning of the kitchen includes such tasks as wiping down the sides of the oven, shaking all the crumbs out of the toaster, and cleaning the windows.

And yes, this style of cleaning does last weeks.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Jim M April 11, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Some multi-ing (multion?) is evolutionarily significant, e.g., walking down/up street and chewing gum; running from bears and breathing. But that takes generations. Knife throwers, chainsaw jugglers, and concert pianists had better not let their minds wander if they have not practiced, practiced, etc.


Jim April 11, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Even high speed computers do not multi task; they only give that impression. When asked to attend to more than one task, these machines actual do one task for a few micro-seconds and save all the intermediate results some where in the memory. Then they go pick up data for the other task, do it for a few micro seconds and save the results. And so on and so on. Their efficiency of task completion goes down drastically. If required to tackle too many tasks at once, these machines simply thrash – they only have time to load and unload the task data; they do not execute any instructions in the programs. The lesson: if there is more than one task to do, do them one at a time and get some competent help. Some cardiologists claim that multi tasking habbits lead to herat trouble, especially in men. Multitasking is not worth it.


Lisa P April 11, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I hope your hand is feeling better – that had to hurt – a lot.

I’m the ultimate multi-tasker and often end up regretting it – just last weekend I insisted on making one trip down the basement stairs with an armful of things rather than two trips – well I made two trips but one was more of a spill lol ~ since then I’ve been reminding myself “a stitch in time….”


Karen Pancoast April 11, 2009 at 7:33 pm

I’m sure sorry about your hand.

And I so look forward to your posts every evening when I can relax a bit with a cup of tea and check in.

And I like you as an informal human even if that means some people ding you for your grammar. Keep up your wonderful chatty self. You’re just great the way you are. I’m grateful to get your positive, helpful posts and thank you for writing them even at 2 am.


Jay Jay April 11, 2009 at 9:42 pm

Yay Karen…. Right on!!


ericasullivan April 11, 2009 at 10:28 pm

Dear Katy,

As a fellow audio traveler to Hogwarts, I totally, totally understand your multi-tasking hiccup. I mean, when Jim Dale is talking, who can remember that ovens are hot, the stove is on, and garbage disposals work better when they don’t have spoons in them?

Anyway, I love your blog! I came to it from the article. Nice photo of indoor laundry hanging! I air-dry all my laundry, too, to save energy and because I live in an apartment building where our dryers are $1.50 a cycle.

I’ll definitely be subscribing to your blog. Good luck, and thanks for writing!


Klara Le Vine April 11, 2009 at 11:23 pm

I ditto Karen – sorry, Carol, I also naturally spot grammatical errors, but this isn’t school and no one cares, really. Katy, I so love all your posts and am amazed that you keep finding great things to post about (I know Carol, preposition at end of sentence is a no-no).

About thinking weeding and listening to tape won’t hurt – it’s not just about not hurting, it’s about being totally into what you’re doing – not doing anything mindlessly. I’m not sure I can explain it well – may I suggest the book The Power of Now – he can explain what I’m trying to say,M1


alunachic April 12, 2009 at 8:03 am

Katy- first the head , now the hand! YOU BE CAREFUL!
Multitasking is Me- i think that is the name of my business. I find myself (at the same time) on the phone, flipping through my physical calendar to post a date, typing an email and listing what i need to do next.
And I wonder why I am so exhausted at the end of the work day- oh yeah, that is at least 12 hours long.
I need to re-evaluate and slow down katy.
You always in your sweet way make me think.


Angela April 12, 2009 at 11:55 am

I am ALWAYS cutting and burning my hands, usually because of trying to do too much at once. Or more specifically, from THINKING about what I need to do next. And I would probably manage to hurt myself even weeding in the garden.

My problem comes more from thinking about multi-tasking than actually multitasking, because I’m something of an anomaly in this day and age, in that I enjoy doing most things one at a time. Like taking a walk without an iPod so I can talk to the neighbors, etc. It’s like Klara is talking about- it’s also a yoga principle- to do things consciously and pay full attention to the moment. There’s a lot of value in it.

I’m so sorry you burned your hand- I have certainly done that more than once. I agree that cooking is an activity that requires complete attention, but you might try music instead of an audiobook. It’s really fun to jump around and dance while you cook (low in the multitasking scale, I think- although I supposed you could get carried away). My husband recently installed speakers in the kitchen and I love it!

Thanks as always for your blog- I love your style and always enjoy reading it.


Romy April 13, 2009 at 6:48 am

Many of us were taught to multitask on jobs and it carried home with us. I worked in restaurants and retail and was told, “Make each trip count”–that meant, never have empty hands, look around for what needs to travel where you are going, oh, and don’t forget to service the customer and clean as you go! Now I teach school and can focus on one class period at a time, enjoy the students, enjoy the lesson. I save planning for planning periods.

The “hyper” thing mentioned above–it takes extraordinary long-term training to break a drive like that. I often find it excruciating to sit and do one thing, like I might crawl out of my bones. But blogging I think will help–I adore focusing on that one thought I want to express (when writing)or follow (when reading.) I usually hate large parties–I want to sit and talk to someone and let an idea run itself out without being interrupted. So now I can go to parties and laugh, and then sit here and actually “converse” with people.

Sometimes, though, multitasking works, depending on where you are–no hot stoves, no stairs, no herbicides! Mindless chores are a great time for me to listen to new music, mentally process things going on in life, listen to the news. But there ARE times to slow down and be in the moment. You have to look for them, though. No one can tell you what they are, but the first one that comes to mind is when children are involved–I try to look into my daughter’s eyes when she talkes to me and savor who she is and is becoming.

Life should be enjoyed moment by moment, but stuff’s gotta get done, too!

BTW blogging should be about sharing ideas and not getting a grade for grammar or spelling.


JJ April 13, 2009 at 7:48 am

For years now it has seemed as if the very worst insult one can convey is to infer that someone else is not crazy busy. One sales clerk at a Home Depot, when I asked her if we could call and check on whether they had what I needed instead of my walking halfway across the store (yet again), as I was short on time and needed to leave. She was so caught up in this ‘busybusybusy’ mindset that she forgot she was at work and said to me “I’m busy, too” but put in the way that people in a casual situation might say to each other – not like a person who was busy at work would say. (And, she was not busy at work – she was simply standing around and not even, oh, using the time she was being paid for to clean a counter.) I thought it might be a local outlook in my big city, but I saw a comment a famous writer who lives far away made about this subject. I’ve since made it a point to try, when possible, to do things in a time frame which enables me to be able to slow down. This new focus has allowed me to occasionally have the chance to be able to say aloud in public settings (grocery store, etc.) “if you need to help them, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry”. It’s hard to convey the feeling I get that I am speaking heresy for all to hear.

As for the ‘snowball effect’ way of paying down debt: some years back I went to a similar class. I had no debt, but still felt there were tips to learn. I heard a woman told to pay off an interest-free charge account first, as it was the lowest amount she owed. The lady was obviously taken aback. The facilitator just said “trust me. It’s best to do this”. Not everyone needs this psychological push to pay off bills, and it’s really sad to me that those who do, who choose this way might well be eaten alive by finance charges for a long time (depending on the finance charges on different accounts). I do recognize the psychological benefit, but, again, not everyone needs that push, that feeling of accomplishment to get this job done. Nothing against those who do, for sure! Just saying this is not the one-size-fits-all solution the class I went to made it out to be.


Kate April 13, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Great story! A great reminder to stay in the now, doing just one thing at a time.


Happy Mum April 13, 2009 at 11:23 pm

Grammar. Well…maybe the comment about subject agreement was rather blunt/abrupt. But some of the responses to it seem a bit unkind. And expressing yourself well and powerfully includes using language correctly — even outside school, no?

The blog is terrific — thank you for writing it.


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