If you want to understand the difference between muti-tasking and muti-focussing, a good place to start is the Mishna (Nedarim 2:3) in today’s daf (Nedarim 17a).
To get a sense of context, this Mishna is part of a series of Mishnayot comparing נדרים (vows) with שבועות (oaths) which, as I noted in my commentary to yesterday’s daf, fundamentally differ because נדרים (vows) are statements we make about our relationship with objects (חפצא), whereas שבועות (oaths) are statements we make about our own selves or other people (גברא).
In terms of our Mishna, we are told that יֵשׁ נֶדֶר בְּתוֹךְ נֶדֶר, literally ‘there is a vow within a vow’, meaning that it is possible to make a vow about a particular item (eg. this object is forbidden to me) for a certain (eg. 30-day) period and, during that same period, make a further vow on that same object which would thus extend the amount of time for which that object is forbidden to me. Simply put, vows can overlap one another.
In contrast, we are informed that אֵין שְׁבוּעָה בְּתוֹךְ שְׁבוּעָה, literally ‘there is no oath within an oath’, meaning that if someone makes an oath forbidding themselves to do something for a certain amount of time, and then, during that same period they make a further oath forbidding the same thing to themselves, then they are only bound by their first oath because oaths cannot overlap one another.
Applying this to our day-to-day lives, what we learn from יֵשׁ נֶדֶר בְּתוֹךְ נֶדֶר is that we can overlap two things at once (multi-task) while maintaining our focus on those things (חפצא), whereas what we learn from אֵין שְׁבוּעָה בְּתוֹךְ שְׁבוּעָה is that we can’t overlap two demands of ourselves (גברא) that each require deep concentration (multi-focus). As Greg McKeown explains in his book ‘Essentialism’: “we can do two things at the same time: wash the dishes and listen to the radio, eat and talk, clear the clutter on our desk while thinking about where to go for lunch, text message while watching television, and so on. What we can’t do is concentrate on two things at the same time”.
Of course, while you may agree with this analysis, it is possible that you may query its application to our Mishna which, rather than discussing the overlapping of two different oaths, is actually discussing the overlapping of two oaths forbidding ourselves from the same action. However, I believe that notwithstanding this fact the principle still applies here – although certainly in a more diluted form, as the overlapping oaths mentioned in the Mishna require a focus on two different spans of time, each of which has its own beginning and end. However, certainly when it comes to two different things, the principle is clear.
The problem, however, is when we blur the lines between multi-tasking and muti-focussing, we can eventually come to treating people (גברא) like objects (חפצא), and to explain what I mean, I’d like to again reference Greg McKeown’s ‘Essentialism’ who relates: “I ran into a former classmate of mine years after graduating from Stanford. I was on campus doing some work on a computer in one of the offices when he came over to me to say hi. After a minute of pleasantries he told me he was in between jobs. He explained a little about the job he was looking for and asked if I could help him. I started asking him some questions to see how I could be helpful to him, but twenty seconds into the conversation he got a text on his phone. Without saying a word, he looked down and started responding to it. I did what I typically do when this happens. I paused and waited. Ten seconds went by. Then twenty. I simply stood there as he continued to text away furiously. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t acknowledge me. Out of curiosity I waited to see how long it would go on. But after two full minutes, which is quite a lot of time when you are standing waiting for someone, I gave up, walked back to my desk, and went back to my work. After another five minutes he became present again, interrupting me for the second time. Now he wanted to resume the conversation, to ask for help with his job search again. Initially I had been ready to recommend him for a job opening I knew of, but after this incident I admit to feeling hesitant about recommending him for an interview where he might suddenly not be present: he’d be present in body, perhaps, but not in mind.”
What this story tells us is when someone is involved in a commitment of themselves (גברא), requiring their attention (i.e. the conversation), then the attempt to overlap it with a further commitment of themselves (i.e. responding to the text without considering the person in front of them) is rarely successful. Simply put, McKeown’s former classmate sought to apply the possibilities of multi-tasking to the limitations of multi-focusing, and in so doing, he treated a former classmate like an object (חפצא) that one picks up and puts down, rather than like a person (גברא) who deserves respect and attention.
In conclusion, by comparing נדרים (vows) with שבועות (oaths) we learn the difference between יֵשׁ נֶדֶר בְּתוֹךְ נֶדֶר and אֵין שְׁבוּעָה בְּתוֹךְ שְׁבוּעָה and how we need to draw a distinction between muti-tasking on things, and multi-focusing on people.