Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Multitasking and the Sunnah


Maryam Sakeenah

You have to be a multitasker, or you’re old fashioned. It is just so normal nowadays to have a conversation while smsing a friend, listen to a song while typing an email, update your facebook status while looking up a reference on Google, watch the television while at the dinner table with family. This just goes to show the magnitude of the transformation the technological revolution has brought about in our social and even personal lives. Multitasking is the Way of Life.
While the modern lifestyle almost dictates multitasking, is it really an efficient way to get things done and get them done well? Much has been written about it, and concerns voiced about multitasking taking its toll on human relationships, work efficiency and quality, time management, mental concentration and human behaviour.   
What in the old-fashioned eighties would be considered rude manners, disrespect, attention deficit or disinterest is now the way to go about things. In a comedy show, Jerry Seinfeld explains his reasons for not possessing a Blackberry Smartphone: “Blackberry people... their pupils do not focus. They’re not really there. They hold the Blackberry in their hands all the time, because this is what it commands them to do. And they listen to what you are saying and compare it to what is on the Blackberry, and which one is really more interesting...”
It is interesting to note that the term multitasking is derived from computer multitasking. It is a basic computer function. But while machines are built to multitask, can we apply it to human lives as well? The modern way of life demands just that, but it is common observation that it leads to attention deficit, poor time management and poor efficiency. Psychological studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time, if both tasks require selecting and producing action. Many suggest that the human brain can only perform one task at a time. (‘Is Multitasking a Myth?’ BBC News, August 20, 2010). Psychiatrist Richard Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” (Hallowell, Richard. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life.) Researchers examined how multitasking affects academic success and found that students who engaged in more multitasking reported more problems with their academic work. (Junco, R. & Cotten, ‘Perceived Academic Effects of Instant Messaging Use.’).
Inability to manage time is a frequent complaint one gets to hear so often. We are by far busier today than ever before, we have more things to do today than ever before, our lives are faster and our tasks speedier than ever before, but we get to accomplish little, if not nothing. Multitasking achieves little. With our uninsightful and rather thoughtless embrace of technology, the ‘barakah’ has quite fled from our lives as we race against time and breathlessly chase deadlines, doing nothing to the heart’s content. We remain perpetual underachievers, perpetually dissatisfied.
As Muslims, the inspiration and guidance always comes from the life of the Prophet (SAW).  While we all know that the Prophet (SAW) possessed a multi-dimensional personality and lived out many roles that inspire all sorts of people, what must be highlighted and reflected upon is how he did justice to each of these roles, lived each aspect perfectly well, and accomplished all of his diverse range of duties remarkably. Whether it be his family life, his political life, his social sphere or his spiritual life, Muhammad (SAW) did it all to perfection. So then, dispensing so many tasks altogether, fulfilling so many of his duties that his position demanded, did the Prophet (SAW) multitask?
Here are some insights from his life that give us some clarity in this regard. For one, the Prophet (SAW) was a beloved husband, and spent quality time with his wives and children. To his friends he was a mentor and a loveable companion. As a military strategist and soldier, a jurist and lawmaker, a head of state, leader and statesman, a teacher and guide, the Prophet (SAW) was the paragon par excellence. Ayesha (R.A) narrates, The Messenger of Allah talked to us and we talked to him. However, he was as if he had not recognized us when it was time for prayer, and he turned to Allah with his all existence.” This shows that the Prophet (SAW) would give his best to each task, one at a time. While at home, he would be fully involved in domestic affairs, spending time with the people of his household, listening to them, talking to them and attending to their needs. And when it was time for other duties for instance the duty of prayer to his Lord, he would shut out everything else and turn towards his Lord with heart and soul, with complete submission and thorough involvement. This perhaps is why he derived from it an intense pleasure that eludes us today, and could feel that Salat was for him ‘the coolness of the eyes.’ This is also why he managed family matters exceedingly well, and all his wives loved his noble companionship thoroughly.
It is also interesting to note the Prophet (SAW)’s manners of conversing with others. It is said he would speak little, but with gravity, precision, balance and wisdom. More than that, he was an intent listener and would listen to others patiently with complete attention till they had finished. In fact, when spoken to, he would turn himself with full involvement and interest towards the speaker, making him feel thoroughly understood and given importance. It worked wonders in gluing together a closely knit and firmly bonded community of companions, disciples, associates, lovers and devotees who later became integral to the spread of the Islamic mission.
In matters of the state or of military planning, the Prophet (SAW) applied himself fully and achieved astounding results. The fact that the Prophet (SAW) is universally acknowledged by all as perhaps the most successful figure in human history, must make us analyze his approach and methods with some seriousness. The way of the Prophet (SAW) was clearly what may be called ‘uni-tasking’, taking one thing at a time, performing it to the best of his ability till its conclusion without interruption, distraction or interference. It is only when one allows oneself to be possessed by a single idea and executes it to its successful end does one become an achiever with a deep sense of satisfaction. This deep contentment for having attained your target after successfully finishing a task you devoted yourself wholly to is an unparalleled feeling that is the privilege of the Sunnah-abiding Muslim to relish. Muslims are essentially uni-taskers.