In her book Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach exhorts us to “…concentrate slowly on completing one task at a time.” So as part of my aspirations project I decided to make ‘Do one thing at a time’ one of my goals. I’m finding it challenging, to say the least.
If you came into my house right now you would find the lights still set up from a food photography session earlier, my groceries that were delivered this morning half unpacked (all the perishables are put away but the dry goods are still out), the dishwasher half unloaded and the laundry sitting by the washer. I’ve started what seems like a million tasks and properly finished none of them. My mind is on my to do list, wondering when I’ll find the time to get out to run that errand and what I’m going to cook for dinner. I need to phone the florist, pick up some light bulbs and buy sour cream at the grocery store. I even checked my email in the middle of writing this post. Sound familiar? This isn’t multitasking; this is madness.
I know I’m not alone. Friends, family and colleagues talk of being ‘frazzled’ and ‘burnt out’ by the pace of modern life. Our attention is being pulled in multiple directions at once. We are talking on the phone while reading our email, helping our kids with their homework while catching up on paperwork or driving while thinking about the conversation we need to have with our boss or significant other. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked someone ‘how are you?’ and they’ve answered ‘busy’.
Used to be I’d get ‘fine’ or ‘a little stressed’ or ‘I’ve had the flu.’ It’s a strange thing – ‘busy’. I overhear conversations where people try to outdo one another in terms of just how busy they are. How many deadlines, how many activities, how long their ‘to do’ list is – it’s like a bizarre competition. Worse, I’ve actually been part of these conversations, uncomfortably realizing halfway through that something is really very wrong.
Busy is a badge of courage these days. Or is it just about feeling needed and important? A work ethic has always been a praise worthy thing; no one wants to be considered lazy. And no one wants to miss out on the newest, latest activity or ‘thing’. No one wants to get ‘left behind’.
So we kid ourselves into thinking we are capable of multitasking. The very word itself is an oxymoron. Human beings really cannot do more than one thing at a time properly. Don’t believe me? Have you ever arrived at a destination in your car and when you parked, been unable to remember the journey? Or realized that you have absolutely no idea what your spouse or one of your children just said to you because you were actually concentrating on something else while you were ‘listening’? Or gotten to the end of the day and realized that while you have worked on several projects, you haven’t actually completed even one? Me too.
The other risk to multitasking is that instead of being suffused with a rewarding feeling of accomplishment when we do complete one task, we spend the majority of our time feeling stressed and anxious as we try to do several things at once. While tasks eventually do get completed, I’m pretty sure it would happen a lot more quickly and we would enjoy the process more if we didn’t try to do everything at the same time.
We have two choices. We can carry on multitasking until we burn out, something falls apart or someone gets hurt, or we can find ways of helping ourselves to learn to step away from this madness. While this is still very much a work in progress for me, here are some techniques I am finding helpful.
Be gentle with yourself.
It took humans over a generation to develop into multitasking; it is going to take us at least a few weeks to learn how to focus on one task at one time. It takes a lot of discipline to do just one thing at a time. Don’t beat yourself up if you find it difficult.
If your mind wanders, remind yourself of what you are doing and let the thought float away. If it comes back, write it down, finish what you are doing and then deal with it. If you start to do something else by mistake, stop and go back to your original task.
If something truly important happens to distract you, stop what you are doing, set it aside and really concentrate on the new thing.
Ever been accused of ‘not really listening’? If someone important needs to talk to you, set what you are doing aside and actually listen to them. Don’t keep working while ‘listening’. Chances are you really won’t hear, and you might give someone important to you a wrong or incomplete answer. Not many things make someone feel more impotent than not being heard.
Stop judging yourself and others by how ‘busy’ they are.
We need to make a real effort not to allow how much we have to do to validate us. Busy does not equal important.
Remind yourself not to expect others to multitask either.
Try not to ask more than one question at a time. ‘Have you done your homework?’ should not be followed immediately by ‘Did you bring that letter about your school trip home?”. Nor should a request that the garbage be emptied be tabled at the same time as a request that the light bulb you can’t reach be changed.
Be reasonable about the amount you expect to accomplish.
If your To Do list has more than ten items on it, prioritize it and divide it up into sections. There are only 24 hours in a day.
Let go of negative emotions.
It’s easy to become addicted to many things, and emotional states are one of them. We all know people who seem to be addicted to drama; we can become just as addicted to that frazzled, busy feeling too. Instead, allow yourself to enjoy a rich feeling of accomplishment when you do complete a task.
Whether you’ve written a book or just got the laundry done, revel in the sense of accomplishment that follows. Treat or praise yourself, or even give yourself a gold star.
Really accept that nobody is perfect.
I don’t know anyone without full time staff that has a house that is perfectly clean and organized all the time. Nor do I know anyone who has an empty in tray at work for more than a few hours at a time. No one has it all together in every area of their life, and it is very unfair to expect it of yourself.
What about you? Is it easy for you to focus, or do you have trouble doing just one thing at a time? Or do you honestly believe it’s just not possible? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments.