Juggling too many activities wastes time and energy, so shelve at least some for those life goals (for now). The urge to do too many things at once is nothing new: as long ago as 1887, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was bemoaning the way “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market”. But it’s probably never been worse for a variety of reasons – overwork, digital distraction, plus the boundary-blurring consequences of the pandemic. A new year often takes an additional form: the desire to implement a total life makeover, sorting out your work backlog and your relationship issues, your health, and your home repairs all at once. The urge should be resisted, though. The single most effective ingredient for a happier and more meaningful life is the exact opposite: improving your capacity to do only one thing at a time.
One main reason this is harder than it looks is that doing several things at once is usually a way of assuaging anxiety. When you’re drowning in to-dos, it’s calming to feel that you’re addressing lots of them simultaneously. And when you think your life’s a mess – you should be exercising more, sorting out your finances, improving your relationship with your kids, and on and on – it’s similarly reassuring to feel you’re tackling all those critical issues, not just one.
But the feeling is deceptive. For a start, plenty of research testifies to the costs of “task-switching”: when you flip between activities, you waste time and energy regaining a state of focus again and again. Worse, each activity becomes a way of avoiding every other activity. So when a task feels difficult or scary – as tasks that matter often do – you can just bounce off to another one instead. The result isn’t merely that you make a smaller amount of progress on a larger number of fronts; it’s that you make less progress overall.
Nobody likes being told that they should shelve their fitness goals for a few months while they work on their marriage, or resign themselves to an overfilled inbox while they complete an important piece of writing; when everything’s urgent, postponement feels like a luxury you can’t afford. But that’s the anxiety talking. The fact is that you can’t afford to postpone almost everything, at any given moment, if you want to make progress on anything. So a big part of the skill of doing one thing at a time is learning to handle the discomfort associated with knowing what you’re not getting done.
“One thing at a time” is a whole philosophy of life, one that treats your goals as important enough to be worth bringing into being, while not pretending your reserves of time or energy are infinite. It represents a commitment to actually achieving a few of your ambitions, rather than wallowing in comforting fantasies of one day achieving them all.
Three Ways To Do One Thing At a Time
1. Use a ‘Personal Kanban’
Divide a whiteboard into three columns – ready to do, doing, and done – then write your tasks on sticky notes, and move them across the columns as you make your way through them. (Or use one of many kanban-inspired apps, such as Trello.) By limiting the number of notes you allow in the “doing” column to just one or two, you’ll ensure you bring tasks to completion, rather than starting too many at once.
2. Batch Your Tasks
Reduce the psychological costs of task-switching by grouping to-dos by type wherever possible. In one unbroken hour spent processing your email, you’ll get through far more messages than if that same hour were scattered in smaller chunks throughout the day.
3. Cultivate Deliberate Imbalance
Instead of a “life makeover”, pick one area to focus on each month or each quarter, and consciously postpone the rest. You’re better off abandoning all hope of (say) decluttering your house while you get started on an exercise routine than trying to do both at once. Then relax about the clutter, safe in the knowledge that it’ll get its turn in the spotlight later on.