TThe urge to do too many things at once is nothing new: as early as 1887, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche lamented the way “one thinks with a watch in hand, even when eating noon while reading the latest news from the Stock market”. But for a variety of reasons – overwork, digital distraction, plus the boundary-blurring consequences of the pandemic – it’s probably never been worse. In the new year, it often takes an additional form: the desire to implement a total life makeover, solving your back work and relationship problems, your health, and your home repairs all at once. However, you have to resist the urge. The most effective ingredient for a happier, more meaningful 2021 is the exact opposite: improving your ability to do just one thing at a time.
One of the main reasons this is more difficult than it sounds is that multitasking is often a way to relieve anxiety. When you’re drowning in to-dos, it’s reassuring to feel like you’re dealing with too many of them simultaneously. And when you think your life is a mess, you should be exercising more, getting your finances in order, improving your relationship with your kids, etc. It’s just as comforting to feel like you’re tackling all of those critical issues, not just one.
But the sentiment is misleading. To begin with, many investigations bear witness to the “task change” costs: When you move from one activity to another, you waste time and energy regaining a state of focus over and over again. Worse still, every activity becomes a way to avoid every other activity. So when a task feels difficult or scary, as important tasks often do, you can just move on to another. The result is not simply that it makes less progress on more fronts; is that it progresses less in general.
Nobody likes being told to put aside (say) their fitness goals for a few months while they work on their marriage, or resign themselves to an overloaded inbox while completing an important writing; When everything is urgent, procrastination feels like a luxury you can’t afford. But that’s the anxiety that speaks. The fact is, you can’t pay no postpone almost everything, at any given time, if you want to advance something. So a big part of the ability to do one thing at a time is learning to handle the discomfort associated with knowing what you are not doing.
Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time, ”say management experts Gary Keller and Jay Papasan in their book. The only thing, which does little more than emphasize this simple but somehow infinitely elusive truth. There are limits, of course: You can’t put your job on hold while working on your poetry collection, or push parenting pause while working to get in shape. But you can constantly seek to move your life in the direction of having as few projects as possible on your plate at once.
And this is more than a warning against, say, checking your email while watching a presentation on Zoom. (You shouldn’t do that though, and in fact you can’t, as what is really happening is that your attention is alternating, rapidly and exhaustingly, between the two.) “One thing at a time” is quite a philosophy of life, one that treats your goals as important enough to be worth putting into practice, without pretending that your reserves of time or energy are endless. It represents a commitment to actually achieving some of your ambitions, rather than wallowing in the comforting fantasies of one day achieving them all.
Three ways to do one thing at a time
Use a ‘personal kanban ‘ Divide a whiteboard into three columns: ready to do, done, and finished, then write your tasks on sticky notes and move them through the columns as you go through them. (Or use one of the many kanban-inspired apps, as Trello.) By limiting the number of notes you allow in the “doing” column to just one or two, you will ensure that you complete tasks, rather than starting with many at once.
Group your tasks Reduce the psychological costs of task switching by grouping to-dos by type whenever possible. In an uninterrupted hour dedicated to processing your email, you will receive many more messages than if that same hour were distributed in smaller chunks during the day.
Cultivate deliberate imbalance Instead of a “life makeover,” choose one area to focus on each month or quarter and consciously postpone the rest. Better to give up all hope of (say) tidying your house while starting an exercise routine than trying to do both at once. Then relax about the mess, safe in the knowledge that you’ll become the center of attention later.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism