As a high school principal, I often found myself multitasking. Professionally, I was teaching, administrating, and trying to raise money to pay salaries. Personally, I was trying to be an exemplary father and husband.
A constant challenge was to set priorities, to distinguish between the urgent from the truly important. It was not always easy to see the difference when I was dealing with an important educational issue and a salary deadline was only days away.
Seeing Eddie Mannix, the central character in Hail, Caesar, who is charged with fixing many crises in the Hollywood entertainment industry, reminded me of the many times I had to juggle many tasks at one time, each requiring a slightly different skill set and each demanding time and attention.
Hail, Caesar takes place in Hollywood during the 1950s. Eddie is charged with protecting the reputations of studio stars. Moreover, he works to solve sensitive issues related to movies that are in production or about to be produced. For example, in a Biblical epic about Christ, he consults with a Catholic priest, a Protestant clergyman, and a rabbi to insure there will be nothing that will offend any religious sensibility. Concurrently, he is working with Western cowboy star Hobie Doyle who is brought in by studio heads to star in a British comedy of manners. Here the problem is how to enable Hobie to drop his Southern drawl in favor of a British accent.
Things become more dicey when movie star Baird Whitlock, the actor playing the Roman Autolycus in the Biblical epic about Christ, is kidnapped by a group of communist screenwriters who feel that the major studios have abused them and taken advantage of them. They want Baird to champion their cause.
Baird’s abduction forces the movie to change its shooting schedule until he is found. Meanwhile, newspaper gossip columnists sense there is a story behind his disappearance and they go to Eddie to get answers. As Eddie finesses his way in giving information to the columnists, he receives word that the kidnappers are demanding a $100,000 ransom. In the midst of all this turmoil, a major corporation recruits Eddie to become a fixer for them.
Jewish law and tradition does not deal specifically with multi-tasking, but does consider two related topics: kavannah or intention, and hesech hadaat, distraction. Kavannah relates to the ability to concentrate, to focus on a present task. For example, when one is praying, one is supposed to focus on the words as he attempts to connect to the Creator. In the Talmud, there is a discussion whether we fulfill a ritual act if, in fact, we are unfocused when we do so. Many of the Sages rule that if one is unfocused during prayer, he has to recite the prayer over again.
Distraction also is a factor in multitasking. If your intention wanders during the ritual act, the act may have to be repeated. For example, Jews are required to ritually wash their hands before eating bread and then say a blessing. If there is conversation between the washing of the hands and the blessings, it is considered an interruption and one has to wash his hands a second time. Everything depends on one’s ability to concentrate no matter what the distraction.
Eddie Mannix is a master of positive multitasking. He succeeds in juggling many jobs at one time because he can shift his entire focus from one topic to another. He does not think about two things at the same time. Rather he moves from concentrating on one subject to concentrating fully on another subject in a matter of seconds. He knows that a wandering mind, an easily distracted person, is a liability to himself and others. Eddie Mannix reminds us that success comes to those who maintain focus in the midst of chaos.