When Megan and I were exploring the grounds of the new Catholic Center, we came across a granite pillar on which were inscribed the words:
AGE QUOD AGIS
I knew enough Latin to realize it meant, roughly, “Do what you do.” That sounded a little trite. Not the sort of thing you would inscribe in stone. It sounded suspiciously like what all the kids say: "You do you."
So I did some research, both about the significance of the inscription as well as the genesis of this particular monument. A neighbor told me that the original owner of the house was Catholic. At it turns out, this is an important maxim in the spirituality of the Jesuit Order, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola in the 16th century. Literally, it means “Do what you are doing.” But more to the point, it implies focusing your energy and effort on the task at hand.
We might elaborate on the phrase:
Do what you are doing, and do it well.
Do what you are doing, and don’t try to do something else.
Don’t get distracted from the task at hand.
Don’t spend all your time daydreaming about what could be, all the while ignoring what is right in front of you.
Let me use a mundane example. Those of you who know me know I like coffee. If you've been to my office, maybe you've seen my French press and coffee grinder. They say this is one of the best ways to make coffee. It takes a little extra time and work, but if you do it right, the result is really good coffee.
You heat the water to 200-205 degrees. You grind the beans right beforehand, slightly coarser than usual. Then, having measured out the proper ratio of ground coffee to water, you poor a little hot water over the coffee to let it "bloom." Then you add the rest of the water. Then you stir and let it steep for 4 minutes. Then you push the plunger down, but not too fast. Then, and only then, do you pour out the coffee.
If you set aside the time and concentrate on the task at hand, the results are markedly better than if you take shortcuts (e.g., using pre-ground coffee, not bothering to measure) or if you try to multi-task. What gets me most of the time is that, while the coffee is steeping, I move on to some other task and lose track of time.
If I really want to make coffee the age-quod-agis way, I need to set aside the time, perhaps 10 minutes, and say "For these ten minutes, I'm making coffee. I'm not checking my e-mail. I'm not surfing the web. I'm going to make coffee the best way I know how."
As human beings, we're not good at dividing our attention. We might think we are. We might feel we're more productive when we multi-task. But more often than not, the result is that we accomplish many things of comparatively lower quality, with less joy.
When we read, how well do we read?
When we are with friends, how well to we listen? How well do we express ourselves?
When we write a paper, how well do we write?
When we pray, how earnestly do we pray?
Sometimes we get distracted, or rush through a task, or do it poorly because our heart is just not in it. It happens, and we need not be embarrassed by that. We get pulled in so many directions. Our heart can't be in everything all the time. Our minds can focus on everything.
But, when all is said and done, our heart and mind are most content and most energized when they can give themselves more fully to a one thing. At the very least: one thing at a time.
Even if a particular task seems mundane, it's worth doing well. So....do what you are doing, the best way you know how.