Do One Thing at a Time (Guiding Principles for Slowing, #1)

Photo by Dustin Lee on Unsplash

The title of this post represents the first Guiding Principle that I want to offer as a path out of Consumerism and into a life where Presence and Creativity are possible. (I am calling this second pathway, “Slowing.”) 

Do one thing at a time.

We start here because it is a simple maxim with life-altering results. And no, I don’t think I am overselling it. Here’s why: Doing only one thing at a time will literally change your brain, which will change your life – the choices you make, the way you experience and interpret events, the things you are and aren’t able to do. When I say that it’s simple, I’m not saying that it’s easy. Far from it – everything in and around you conspires against the single-minded human being. Advertisements and notifications bombard us throughout the day, external distractions abound, and our brains easily become addicted to this constant stimulation. So “simple,” in this case, does not mean “easy to implement.” But it is easy to remember, and that is important in our ever-distracted society.

Setting Our Brains Up for Success

Our minds were meant to wander. This is new learning for me. I had always assumed that mind-wandering signaled lack of discipline, and that we should seek to train ourselves out of the habit. And while it is certainly good to be able to rein in our focus when the situation calls for it, this doesn’t mean that we should never let our minds wander.

It turns out, according to the latest neuroscience research (see references at the end of the post), that creativity is directly linked to mind-wandering. Our brains require a certain amount of freedom to process information, make connections, and come up with new ideas. And this is where things get a bit counterintuitive. We might expect that multi-tasking and mind-wandering would go hand in hand, but the opposite turns out to be true. Our brains are most likely to engage in productive, creative mind-wandering when we are doing one thing at a time. I don’t mean that if we focus on a certain project, we will suddenly be inundated with creative ideas relating to that project. I mean that, when we are doing only one thing at a time, our minds are free to wander around, and when they wander, they work their magic. When we multi-task, on the other hand, our brains are so overloaded with data to process that they have no capacity to tackle anything other than the many tasks at hand.

It is because our brains long for this freedom to explore unknown territory – to wander away from the task that’s before us and subconsciously solve a different problem – that we are so susceptible to the distraction of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is like potato chips for our brain – we reach for them to fulfill a certain craving, and it sort of does the job in the moment, but at the end of the day we feel like crap. What our brains actually want is the freedom to drift into unfocused thought from time to time, which is very different from trying to focus on multiple tasks simultaneously. The impulse feels similar, because in both cases our brain is straying from the primary task, but the implications are drastically different.

Single-Tasking vs. Multi-Tasking

For illustrative purposes, let me spell out what I mean by “doing one thing at a time.” Maybe it seems obvious, but we are so used to multi-tasking that we may not be aware of how much we are trying to do at once. Here are some examples of tasks or activities that are often paired with other tasks or activities, but that can be done on their own:

  1. Eating a meal (often paired with: looking at phone, watching TV, reading, work, driving)
  2. Going to the bathroom (often paired with: looking at phone, doing a crossword puzzle, reading)
  3. Driving a car (often paired with: sending texts, looking at maps, listening to music/radio/podcasts, making a phone call, eating)
  4. Exercising (often paired with: listening to music/podcasts, reading, watching TV)
  5. Having a conversation with a friend (often paired with: scrolling through social media, responding to texts/calls, glancing at notifications)
  6. Watching TV (often paired with: scrolling through social media, responding to messages/notifications, working on “mindless” tasks)
  7. Responding to an email (often paired with: other work tasks, responding to texts/notifications, looking at several other browser tabs simultaneously)

Items 1-4 are things that we would generally consider “mindless,” and therefore not requiring our full attention. And while it’s true that we can successfully accomplish these tasks while distracted, there is a cost. These sorts of everyday tasks are exactly the kinds of spaces where our brains will most naturally process and problem solve, and when we fill up those spaces with other unnecessary noise, we overload our systems with way more data than we can handle. This doesn’t make us superhuman information geniuses; it makes us numb, overwhelmed, anxious, and completely lacking in self-awareness. What’s more, it kills any chance we have of creativity and joy.

Items 5-7 we probably acknowledge require a bit more of our conscious attention, but because we’ve trained ourselves to need constant activity and noise, focusing on one conscious activity is no longer enough for us. Our addiction to continuous overstimulation leaves us feeling twitchy and restless. We identify this as boredom, but really we are experiencing withdrawal symptoms, no different than if we were to miss our morning cup of coffee. Not to mention, if we leave too much space in our lives for our subconscious mind to seep through, we might have to face unwanted thoughts. Better to fill all the gaps with gratuitous activity, just in case. What’s the harm? The harm has been detailed in countless studies and articles, which I will link to below. But here is a summary of some of my personal findings, which are corroborated by the scientific studies:

The more you multi-task, the more…

Your anxiety will increase. This is huge. In a society where anxiety is epidemic, we need to be looking for ways to minimize it, not consciously engaging in tasks that magnify it. Why does multi-tasking have this effect? Two big reasons: 1) The more you train your brain to jump from one thing to another, the more frenzied your thinking will become. This means that, even when you want to be calm – e.g. when you are trying to fall asleep, or when you are having a face-to-face conversation with a friend – your brain will continue to bombard you with unwanted thoughts and impulses, and you will feel powerless to stop them. The feeling of not having control over your thoughts is anxiety-inducing in and of itself. Add to that trying to deal with the thoughts themselves, many of which will involve worrying about something, and you have an anxiety cocktail. 2) The more time you spend overloading your brain with stimuli, the more time your brain needs to process those stimuli before you can feel at peace. Unfortunately, those who multi-task the most are also least likely to make space for reflection and processing.

Your productivity will decrease. Multi-tasking is much less efficient than single-tasking. It gives you the feeling of busyness without allowing you to accomplish anything. On my heavy multi-tasking days, a whole afternoon could go by without me having a thing to show for it. How is that possible? I was “working” the whole time!

Imagine that you are in the center of a circle, which is surrounded by a bunch of cones.

Each cone represents a task you want to complete. Your goal is to run from the center to the edge, grab one of the cones, and bring it back to the center. When you’ve done this, you’ve completed that particular task. Then you run back out, grab the next cone, and bring it back to the center. And on and on until you’ve collected all the cones. There’s no shortcut between adjacent cones – you have to run back to the center every time you want to strike out on a different path to another cone. Now imagine that every time you get halfway to one cone, you change your mind and decide to go for a different one instead. You could spend a whole day running partway toward one, back to the center, partway toward another, back to the center, and so on, and never collect a single cone. This is a picture of our “productivity” when we are multi-tasking.

You will be disconnected from your creativity. There are certain kinds of thoughts that only come to the surface when we let our minds wander. Creative ideas fall into this category. Creative inspiration isn’t something that can be manufactured; it’s something that arises from a life that has margins. The times in my life when I have written songs most prolifically are the times when I have not had a car. Walking and taking the bus provided the space my brain needed to create lyrics and melodies. And honestly, it felt effortless! I wasn’t trying to write songs as I walked home from the bus stop, they just flowed out of me as naturally as my breath. Conversely, when our brains are overloaded with external data that constantly needs to be processed, they are unable to get to this place of creativity. I believe that, at least in some cases, this disassociation from our creative selves can be a cause of depression.

Your capacity for empathy and emotional control will decrease. Neuroscientists have found that people who regularly multi-task have less brain density in the region of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional control. Yikes! (Check out the first article listed below for more on this.) The way this has shown up in my own life is that, after multi-tasking, I have a very hard time being present with people. Focusing on a single conversation just doesn’t feel stimulating enough, so my body twitches, my gaze darts here and there, my mind jumps around searching for something more satisfying, maybe my hand reaches for my phone. In short, I’m a far cry from the person I want to be – a calm, patient, empathetic, healing presence.

Where to Begin

As with any behavioral change, I always recommend beginning with observation rather than immediately trying to change your habits. Observation is a crucial first step because it helps us to see our situation more clearly, which gives us a better chance of fixing the right problem, instead of rushing to “fix” something that is beside the point. Observation also ushers us into a calm, reflective space where we can “wonder” and ask questions about our behavior, rather than judging or shaming ourselves for failing to live up to new expectations.

To begin the observation stage, ask yourself these questions throughout the day: “How many things am I doing right now? Which thing is most important? What would it look like to only do that thing right now?” Pick whichever question feels most helpful to you, or come up with your own, and write it somewhere you’ll see it frequently – e.g. on a Post-It note on your computer, on a notecard on your desk, on the back of your hand.

If “doing one thing at a time” feel impossible, start by doing one less thing at a time. Close one browser tab, cut out one form of excess media consumption. If you gradually cut out one thing at a time, you will eventually get to a single, most important activity or task.

Here are a few tips for success that have helped me make this change:

  • Observe before trying to make a change. Do this for a set amount of time, e.g. 1 day or 1 week. While you are in your observation phase, schedule times of reflection to record your observations. Think of yourself as a scientist studying a different species or culture!
  • Set a timer. This is a great way to set an external boundary on your focused time, so that you can’t rationalize stopping to do X activity, which suddenly feels very urgent. If you are trying to work on something over the course of several hours, divide your time into smaller segments (e.g. 25 or 30 min.)
  • Take breaks. In between your 30 min. work segments, pause for 5 minutes to stretch your legs and let your mind wander. If you are able to step outside during your breaks to get fresh air and look at trees, this is best.
  • Create instructions and/or rules for yourself. I know this will rankle some of you, but remember, you are the one making the instructions. No one else is forcing this on you; it’s something you’re choosing for yourself. The reason this is so helpful is because, anytime we are learning something new, it helps to literally and explicitly be reminded of what we are trying to do. If you know that you can always find the loophole in anything, then be a little more firm with yourself. “I don’t check email or social media while I’m working on writing assignments. I know that sounds like a nice distraction right now, but it’s not something I do. I can do that later if I want to, but not right now.”

Practice Exercises

Exercise #1 “Making Space for Mind-wandering”

Purpose: To protect reflective spaces in your day and allow your mind the freedom to wander uninhibited.

Choose one everyday activity that you would consider “mindless,” and that you often pair with other activities. This could be eating a meal, using the restroom, driving, etc. Decide for one day to not multi-task while engaging in that activity. At the end of the day, take a moment to reflect on how it went and what you noticed. If you’re feeling brave, try doing this for a whole week!

Exercise #2 “The Power of Focused Attention”

Purpose: To notice the difference in your productivity when you intentionally choose to focus on one task instead of constantly multi-tasking.

  1. Choose an activity that you would like to dedicate your focused attention to (e.g. working on a project, cleaning your room, reading a book, playing an instrument).
  2. Decide how much time you want to spend on that activity. (If it’s more than 30 minutes, I suggest dividing it into 25 or 30 minute increments with a 5 minute break in between.)
  3. Now set a timer for the desired amount of time and enjoy your chosen activity without interruption. (If the timer is on your phone, be sure to set your phone to “Silent” or “Do Not Disturb” and place it physically out of sight. Not just upside down, but completely outside of your path of vision.)
  4. If and when an opportunity for distraction arises – for example, you have to go to the bathroom, or you suddenly need a snack, or you have a question that you urgently need to Google – remind yourself that you are free to do any of those things when the timer goes off. Chances are, this is just your body and mind adjusting to the lack of multi-tasking, and the desire will go away as soon as you remind yourself of the boundary you’ve set. The one exception I have to this “no interruption” rule is that I allow myself to make a quick note if I remember something important that I need to add to my to do list. Keep a pen and paper handy for this purpose, so you don’t have to look at your phone. I allow this because we are so unused to single-tasking that our brains crave opportunities to bring important thoughts to the surface and will undoubtedly do so during this time. Don’t be surprised if you are suddenly barraged with creative thoughts, or if someone comes to mind who you’ve been meaning to reach out to. These are all things that your true self wants, but that get buried underneath the constant stimuli of our normal multi-tasking ways of being. And unfortunately, if we don’t regularly make space for them to emerge, they will eventually be lost forever in the abyss of our subconscious. Just be sure to protect your single-tasking time by limiting yourself to jotting a quick note – a few words, just enough to remember what you meant after the fact – rather than getting sucked into starting a new project or task then and there. Whatever it is, I promise it can wait until the timer goes off.

Exercise #3 “Decluttering Your Screen (and Your Mind!)”

Purpose: To notice our impulse to jump from one thing to the next, and to feel the difference when we declutter our environment.

The goal is simple: Only keep a document or tab open while you are actively using it. As soon as you are done using it (even if you might return to it later), close it. Don’t just minimize it, close it. (Obviously save first! Or if it’s a tab on your browser that you might need later, copy the URL down somewhere so you can find it later.)

If you are like me and are accustomed to keeping 10+ tabs open on your browser, then you will quickly realize how impossible it feels to only use one at a time! And it’s true that sometimes you do need to have another tab open to complete a task – e.g. if you are copying and pasting something from a webpage into your email. However, I’ve found that 3 tabs is usually a realistic limit when I’m only working on one task at a time. If I’ve gone over 3, I’ve probably slipped into multi-tasking, or am setting myself up to be distracted down the line. (Why do I need to keep my email open all day long? Why not choose to open it a couple times a day to check messages, rather than letting incoming messages derail whatever I want to be focusing on? Why should a message that I received 3 minutes ago take precedent over a task that has been on my to do list for weeks?)

While you are engaging in this exercise, take the stance of a nonjudgmental observer. Notice your impulse to open another browser tab when one page is loading slowly. What if you just sat and waited for the webpage to load, instead of jumping to another task in the meantime? See how many slow, deep breaths you can take while you are waiting.

If you give any of these exercises a try, leave a comment sharing how it went! What was challenging? What was rewarding? Where did you get stuck?

Further Reading

Reflection Questions

  1. What stands out to you in this post? What stirs you up? What resonates?
  2. What impact of multi-tasking do you see in your own life?
  3. What’s one simple action step you could take that would move you toward the goal of “one thing at a time”?

This is part 2 in a series on “Slowing.” Find part 1, “Slowing: An Antidote to Consumerism,” here.

2 Comments

  1. Kenny on November 20, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    Needed this reminder. Thanks!

  2. Kenneth Merrifield on November 20, 2019 at 8:50 am

    I highly recommend the book entitled Rest that was cited here … It changed my life.

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