St. Francis de Sales on Multi-Tasking

This painting, called “Angelus,” is one of my favorites.  It is a painting of a couple of simple farmers pausing in the midst of their labor to pray a traditional Catholic prayer called “The Angelus” which is prayed three times throughout the day at 6 a.m., 12 noon, and 6 p.m.  It reveals humility and devotion in the midst of labor and action.  It is simply beautiful and we actually have this hanging in our dining room.

In Chapter 10 of St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, we are given some very good advice on how to go about our daily business carefully and diligently but without anxiety.  Often we move about hustling and bustling, our minds are here and there in a split second, and we’re accompanied by quick-paced action, stress and pressure to get multiple things done by the day’s end.

Multi-tasking comes to my mind in this vein as well.  It seems to be lauded under the value of productivity: The more you are doing, the more “productive” you are.  Technology has also made it all too easy to multi-task:  You can check an email or message while you’re in the middle of making dinner and are on the phone at the same time.

But what would the saints say about this ability to multi-task and work in a frenzy?

St. Francis compares this multitude of “small affairs” – our daily duties, running and going here and there, job tasks and things around the house to be done – to flies:  “Flies harass us less by what they do than by reason of their multitude, and so great matters give us less disturbance than a multitude of small affairs.”

Is This Me at Times?

Do you…

  • Schedule a multitude of activities/errands during the day?  Maybe during the week?

  • Find myself more often than not overwhelmed about all the things I have to do?

  • Often do two or more things at the same time?  For example, respond to a message or email while doing work/cooking/talking?

  • Neglect the spiritual duties of myself and my family (which are primary) or put them aside on a consistent basis?

  • Find it difficult to just be still and in silence?  Do I constantly feel the need “to do” rather than “just be”?

  • Feel more self-worth when I accomplish a lot of things?

Do not get me wrong, accomplishing our various daily tasks and duties are certainly important and there is dignity to our work.  It would be slothful and lazy otherwise.  But is our work characterized by a certain anxiousness, restlessness, or frenzy at times?  St. Francis says,

The care and diligence due to our ordinary business are very different from solicitude , anxiety, and restlessness.  The Angels care for our salvation and seek it diligently, but they are wholly free from anxiety and solicitude…. [Intro to the Devout Life, Ch. 10 – all other quotes from St. Francis in this post will be strictly from this chapter unless otherwise noted]

In other words, there remains in the midst of our duties and daily business an interior freedom with the diligence with which God wishes us to work.

But when we do these things…

…at the expense of turning our gaze away from God in the midst of our duties,

…or consume ourselves in them to the point of neglecting our spiritual duties to God – what St. Benedict calls “the work of God” – which should be primary in our daily lives and concerns (this would include things like making time for quiet daily mental prayer in solitude, going to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, going to confession frequently),

…or when they lead us to feel pressured, rushed, anxious or overwhelmed,

….when we become so engulfed by the hustle and bustle and daily business that we find it difficult to be still and quiet at times, especially in prayer

…then we have cause for concern and may want to heed St. Francis’ advice.

Why this affects your spiritual life

This “multitude of activities,” the multi-tasking, going a million miles an hour, and the rushing about (read a past post I wrote about rushing) and feeling pressured to do this or that and get here or there easily disposes us to and creates an anxiousness and restlessness with which we perform those very daily duties.  St. Francis says…

…do not set about your work with restlessness and excitement, and do not give way to bustle and eagerness in what you do; every form of excitement affects both judgement and reason, and hinders a right performance of the very thing which excites us…No work done with impetuosity and excitement was ever well done, and the old proverb “Make haste slowly” is a good one. [Emphasis added]

(Just as a note, when St. Francis uses the word “excites,” he means to arouse our emotions.)

Then St. Francis refers to the story of Martha and Mary, which I’m sure we’re all familiar with.  “Thou art careful and troubled about many things.” (Luke 10:41)  He remarks that our Lord reproved her for growing eager and troubled, giving way to disquiet and anxiety. These constant concerns done with constant hustling and bustling and restlessness can turn our gaze away from Christ and our primary duties – “the work of God.”  In the end, all of our work will be less fruitful and profitable for our salvation.  St. Francis de Sales makes two wonderful analogies to help us understand this:

The bumblebee makes far more noise and is more bustling than the honeybee, but it makes naught save wax – no honey; just so those who are restless and eager, or full of noisy solicitude, never do much or well…

…The rivers which flow gently through our plains bear barges of rich merchandise, and the gracious rains which fall softly on the land fertilize it to bear the fruits of the earth; but when the rivers swell into torrents, they hinder commerce and devastate the country, and violent storms and tempests do the like.

Our zipping around a million miles an hour makes us anxious to accomplish and get many things done; multi-tasking diverts our attention and scatters our minds causing it to bounce to multiple places in seconds and hinders the virtue of simplicity in our tasks.  These things – while praised by the world and the energetic, type-A personalities (like myself!) – actually do harm to the fruit our work could bear.

St. Francis’ Advice on Going About Our Daily Business

Well, what are we to do?

To summarize St. Francis’ advice, he recommends attending to our daily duties in the following ways:

  • Give it our best attention, (which is impossible if we try to do more than one thing at once or hurriedly; try to work at half a pace slower –  a “prayerful” pace as I’ve heard it called)

  • Accept the duties which come upon you quietly (including all the duties and things that happen both planned and unplanned in our day!),

  • Fulfill our tasks methodically, one after another, (avoid doing two things at a time whenever possible, as it can hinder a well-performed task for God, can distort our judgement and reason of the matter, and move us away from that virtue of simplicity and single-heartedness of seeking God in the midst of our task),

  • When our ordinary work is not especially engrossing (perhaps commuting to work, folding laundry or washing dishes), let our hearts be fixed more on God than on it,

  • But if the work requires your undivided attention, then pause from time to time and look to God.

This last piece of advice I will quote because I think it’s most important:

Lean solely on God’s Providence, by means of which alone your plans can succeed.  Meanwhile, on your part work on in quiet cooperation with Him, and then rest satisfied that if you have trusted entirely to Him you will always obtain such a measure of success as is most profitable for you, whether it seems so or not in your own individual judgement.

One needs to trust that no matter what happens throughout the day, no matter what obstacles and inconveniences arise in one’s daily work, no matter what is left undone from your original plan – that it is part of God’s will.  By trusting in Him, and accepting all things in quiet cooperation, the work of your day will bear the most fruit and success as is profitable for you – whether it seems like that to you or not.  Remember, God does not see as we see and judge as we typically judge.  What we may consider a “successful” day may not be truly successful in God’s eyes at all.  But if we simply trust in Him and remain surrendered to His will in the midst of our daily business, we can rest assured knowing that it is truly what is best for us and those whom we’ve encountered during our day.  May we avoid things that unnecessarily distract us, ask for the grace to discern in the moment what things truly need our immediate attention and what can wait, and then try to focus simply on the task at hand.

So does this sound like you at times?  What are you planning to do to change what needs to be changed?  Feel free to share!


The Angelus by Jean-François Millet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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