Scott Benhase: Multitasking kills leadership

Disciplined prayer and reflection on your life and leadership are not luxuries.

A few years ago researchers at Stanford investigated how college students multitasked. They assumed they did it much more effectively than older adults. The researchers expected to find highly toned cognitive abilities that allowed effective multitasking. What they actually found was that the more people multitasked, the worse at it they were. They were worse at identifying relevant information, more distractible, and more disorganized. They even became worse at what multitasking is supposed to help with: switching tasks seamlessly. Multitasking, they concluded, impairs one’s ability to think reflectively. Such reflection is about thinking long enough on a topic to weigh a number of ideas. That can’t be done in 30-second bytes while also updating a Facebook page, changing the playlist on an iPod, or watching the latest cute cat video on YouTube.

I think leadership in our churches suffers, if not from multitasking itself, certainly from the spirit of multitasking. Like Martha in Luke 10:41-42a (“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part.”), we become so distracted by the busyness of leadership that we do not make the time to think reflectively and prayerfully on our life and actions. It is not that we do not have the time. Of course we do. It is that we often lack the courage to live into such a direct, prayerful, and reflective relationship with God.

In her new book, “In Your Holy Spirit,” Michelle Heyne addresses the five traditional spiritual practices (Weekly Eucharist, Daily Prayer, Reflection, Community and Service). Her chapter on reflection is the one I found most valuable because it is the one practice we often neglect in our multitasked, Blackberried, and instant-messaged culture. Heyne challenges us to have the courage to live, act, and pray differently.

As leaders of the church, we need to step back, gain perspective, listen to others, and spend time in solitude so we can think reflectively and prayerfully. Such reflective time is a necessary precursor to right actions. We must be able to think and see clearly before we can lead and act faithfully. In Mark 8:23-25, we read, “Jesus laid hands on the blind man and asked: ‘Can you see anything?’ And the man looked up and said, ‘I can see people, but they look like trees walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

When we do not make the time for solitude so we can think reflectively and prayerfully, we often end up seeing “trees walking” and not the people, things, and circumstances of our lives that truly matter. Like with the blind man in the gospel, we need more time for Jesus to work on us, for the needed time to listen to the Holy Spirit in our daily prayers and in the prayers of our community. So, make the time for prayer and disciplined reflection on your life and leadership. It is not a luxury for when time allows. It is a necessity for which we must make time.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.