- Personal Development -

One Thing at a Time

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Multitasking can rob you of the one thing you need most: your life focus.

I am a confirmed list maker. Every day, my pen at the ready, I open my schedule book and detail those tasks that are most in need of being completed. Like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, I am always thinking of my schedule, how much I have to accomplish and how little time there is to do it. This frequently pushes me into multitasking overdrive.

You know what I mean: You wash dinner dishes while catching up with friends on the phone. You fold clothes and quiz your child on French nouns and verbs. You use drive time to resolve family disputes between offspring (they are, after all, a captive audience). You add items to your household shopping list while fielding client calls or boss demands. And each time you do double duty, you applaud yourself for your organizational skills.

Does this sound like your day? Even now, while you are reading this, is some part of your mind thinking of what you have to do later today, tonight, tomorrow? Is your brain buried under a mass of mental sticky notes, making it difficult to think clearly? Take the advice Sarah Ban Breathnach offers in Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy: “Today, we must start to recover our sanity. The way we do this is to concentrate slowly on completing one task at a time.”

How can you tell when you are suffering from multitask excess? The following are some key indicators:

  • You pull into a parking lot and realize you don’t remember any details of the drive.
  • Dinner is over but you don’t recall the taste of the food – or even eating it.
  • You carry on conversations with friends or family members but later can’t remember what was said.
  • Multitasking is so automatic that when you only do two things at once, you feel that you are slacking off.
  • When someone asks what you did the day before, you have to consult your datebook because you just can’t recall.

Too Much To Do

I’m not denying that there are times when multitasking is useful or even necessary. All too often, the multitude of responsibilities we bear makes it essential that we function as efficiently as possible, and sometimes that means finding ways of doing more than one activity at the same time.

But when we multitask as a matter of course or habit, we rob ourselves of a sense of accomplishment or pride in what we have done because we are still doing something else. We don’t experience a feeling of completion because we don’t make time to take stock. We seldom slow down and celebrate what we’ve already done because there is still so much to do.

We have confused quantity with quality, thinking the number of tasks completed or obligations fulfilled are more important than the degree of excellence or thoroughness to which the work is done. And we wonder why we feel a pervading sense of exhaustion coupled with a sense that we just aren’t working hard enough or fast enough – because, if we were, wouldn’t we be done by now?

At one point in my life, despite all the checkmarks next to completed items on my to-do list, I realized I was feeling increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied. My work was not at the level I wanted it to be, my family was complaining that I never really listened to them (“I told you that already, Mom! Didn’t you listen?” was a frequent complaint), and it was becoming less and less intrinsically satisfying to be Superwoman.

I knew I had to do something different, decisive. I had to take a figurative 180-degree turn in how I handled my life. And so, I decided to cease multitasking.

Step by Step

What was the outcome of my experiment? I realized how often I did two or more things at a time, and how little I remembered of the doing. I saw that living each day in a state of semi-awareness was psychologically unsatisfying. And I learned that though multitasking may sometimes be a necessity, it is not a constant requirement of a productive life.

If you feel it’s time for you to adopt the dictum “less is more,” try this three-step process designed to take you from being a “Master of Multitasking” to a “Super Single-Tasker.”

Step One: For 24 hours, do just one thing at a time – no multitasking allowed. No answering emails while talking on the phone or reading the news while drinking your coffee. You award each task, large or small, its own time for completion, granting it a singular importance on your daily to-do list.

You may find, as I did, that this is much harder than you expect. In my case, the challenge started with my morning walk, where a babble of voices in my head competed for attention: the as-yet-undetermined lead for the article due that day; the possible outcomes of a family member’s health problems; the housework that I needed to attend to the moment I got back.

As soon as one of these thoughts surfaced, I would tell myself, “One thing at a time. Right now, you are on a walk. Concentrate on that.” No sooner would that intruder leave than another would take its place. But each time, I sent the new thought packing. I was amazed at how much unwelcome “company” I had taken along with me that morning.

Step TWO: Take the process to another level by pausing after each task is completed to show appreciation for the person who accomplished it – you. For instance, after you fold that last basket of laundry, recognize the commitment involved in providing your family with fresh, clean clothes. When you turn in a project at work, value the professional skills you possessed that contributed to the company’s functioning. No one else may know, or care, about what you did, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you value your labors and your many different roles, for if you don’t, how can you expect anyone else to?

Step THREE: For many of us, the third step might prove to be the biggest challenge: moving from multitasking through single-tasking to zero-tasking. Doing nothing – no action of any kind.

I can hear you now: “Do nothing? I don’t have time to do nothing! My family/job/world would come crashing to a halt if I did nothing!”

Relax. I’m not advocating that you quit your job, abdicate your personal responsibilities and live under a tree with nothing but the clothes on your back. All I am suggesting is that you interject a few little moments of inaction into your life. Each time you complete a task, imagine you’ve reached an intersection where the light has just turned red. Stop and recognize where you are at that moment – at the corner of What-I-Just-Did Avenue and What-I-Will-Do-Next Street – before rushing down the next road.

Catch your Breath

You may find, as I did, that the idea of stopping or even slowing down is at odds with your normal behavior. But taking a brief pause, a Breath Break, can result in increased energy. We are giving our mind, body and spirit the chance to breathe, to refresh, to reinvigorate.

Try it now: For the next 60 seconds, put your reading down and do nothing. Sit still. Breathe. Relax. Don’t think. Don’t plan. Don’t file your nails or your paperwork. Stop. Center yourself. Breathe. Fill your body with the deepest breath you can take in, hold it and then release it gently. There’s no magic number of inhalations and exhalations, no target to strive for. That would be turning your Breath Break into a task. Just sit quietly for one minute and let yourself be.

OK, time’s up. Did you find it difficult to stop, even for so short a time? Did you keep stealing glances at your watch, convinced that 60 seconds must have passed already, that you couldn’t possibly have only been inactive for just half that time? If so, that only illustrates at what speed you’ve been moving.

Now, check your breathing: Is it a little slower, a little deeper? Does your body feel even the tiniest bit more relaxed? Just imagine how you would feel if you had stretched it another minute. Or two. Or three. You would feel calmer, more centered, more energized. Paradoxically, the more often you pause for Breath Breaks, the more you will be able to accomplish.

Datebooks and calendars, to-do lists and deadlines are unavoidable aspects of modern life. We must make a conscious choice to do one thing at a time and to our best ability, to appreciate our own achievements and, most importantly, take the time to refresh and replenish our souls. We will then achieve a life measured not by quantity, but by quality – not by tasks completed, but by moments truly lived.

Nancy Christie is a writer and essayist whose work has appeared in Woman's Day, Better Homes and Gardens and T'ai Chi Magazine. This essay was excerpted from her recent book, The Gifts of Change (Beyond Words Publishing, 2004). She can be reached through her Web site at www.nancychristie.com.

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