Doing One Thing

(This is the third (final) piece in a three-part series on “Multitasking“.)

We have already established why multitasking doesn’t work (for most of us), and why unitasking works.

To recap, this is why unitasking or doing one thing at a time works:

We think it’s the number of tasks we’re capable of juggling simultaneously that determines how productive we are. The reality is that we’re most effective and efficient when we do one thing at a time, fully absorbed, sequentially. The difference between trying to engage many things at once versus engaging with one thing for as long as possible is tremendous.

What does a day look like when you’re doing one thing at a time? The day looks relaxed, because I’ve already planned my day and week in advance using a calendar and list manager. I don’t have to worry about what I’m not doing. Sure, there are a few ad hoc things that might show up, and we can build buffers to account for those unexpected tasks, but by and large, I’ve already decided the essential things I’m going to be doing during the week.

I’m more present and engaged in what I’m doing. That means I give my complete attention to the thing in front of me, following the natural rhythm of the day. I schedule work based on the time and attention I have in a given day, rather than letting the work decide for me.

I’m at my best when I’ve planned my day and week in advance. Regardless of how well I plan my week, some things do change. Doing a daily review at night helps me review those changes and plan for the following day accordingly.

You can only feel good about what you’re doing when you know what you’re not doing. There is clarity involved.

When you’re working, work. When you’re playing, play. When you’re resting, rest. When you’re watching television, give that your complete attention. Ditto with reading a book. Most of the things that are worth doing are worth doing well. As a rule of thumb, any activity that is cognitive in nature should be done by itself. It can be combined with a “mindless” activity like listening to music. By “mindless” I mean activities that don’t require you to use your brain.

Whatever it is that you do at any given time, give it your complete attention. When you’re checking email, do that. When you’re surfing the web, do that. Put intention behind it. Don’t do it and feel guilty at the same time — that’s just undermining yourself. If you think you have guilty pleasures, schedule time for them, and then do it rather than feeling guilty doing it. Otherwise you’re spreading yourself too thin. In any case, we can only do one thing at a time. The quicker you make your peace with it, the easier it gets. This is presuming that everything in your life is important. If it’s not important, it should not be in your life, and you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

So, how do you do one thing at a time at work? Well, first you have to know everything you have on your plate. How are you going to determine what you want to work on if you don’t have a complete inventory of things you’ve committed to yourself and to others? I wrote about the value of having a “trusted system” to manage those commitments. I also suggest that you read thinking and doing to think about your work and then to do the work.

When you feel like you have too many things on your mind, do a “brain dump” of all the things that have your attention in your list manager. Focus on capturing those things first, and only after you’ve captured them all, go through that list one by one to clarify what each of those things mean to you. When we don’t pay attention to things that have our attention, those things take more of our attention than they deserve. Even better is to capture the thing that has our attention when it has our attention.

Before you start your work every day, you can write Morning Pages as a way to warm up to figure out things that have your attention. That way, by the time you get to your work, you’ve already captured the things on your mind, about which you can decide what they mean for you later, and then simply get on with your work. Apart from that, it’s a great exercise to write every day as well as first thing in the morning.

Once you have a complete list of things you’ve decided that you’re going to do at some point, then it’s a matter of showing up and doing the work at the right time.

Here are some strategies to make that happen:

  • You want to relax first. That means slowing down. You’re a human, not a machine. Act that way. Be present.

  • Be ruthless about managing your time and attention. One way to do that is by scheduling work based on attention.

  • Separate the thinking from the doing to work effectively.

  • Pause before making choices long enough to let your logical side beat the emotional side of your brain from doing what you might regret later.

  • Figure out what’s important to you by doing things that matter. When you do this, you don’t have to worry about not checking email or getting distracted because you would be doing things out of intentionality rather than reactivity. Also, being proactive might help.

Here are some specific tactics you can use at work:

  • Commit to doing work for 25 minutes at a time. Focus on getting started often, and finishing will take care of itself.

  • Schedule large blocks of time on your calendar for actions that require your complete attention; these are usually high-value actions that require the most effort in a given work day. Try to do them in the earlier part of the day. I wrote about this in getting work done.

  • Divide your work day in 90–minute intervals; here’s the short explanation from the post on sitting less:

Researcher Peretz Lavie and others have found that ultradian rhythms govern our energy levels. What that means is that we’re most effective when we alternate between 90 minutes of work and 30 minutes of rest. Our ability to focus/concentrate diminishes rapidly after 90 minutes (at most 2 hours), so we need to renew our bodies/minds with a 30-minute break to replenish our energy.

  • Give your brain some downtime during your work day by taking frequent breaks. I wrote about this in sitting less. When you distance yourself from your work, it helps you maintain objectivity about your work, and also increases the quality of your work.

  • Renew yourself consistently by taking frequent breaks and adequate rest in the form of sleep and doing regular exercise. This will keep you sharp and on the edge.

  • Perform a daily review to map out your day in terms of work you want to finish. Doing such a review gives you the clear space to do the things you want in the time you have.

  • Slow down. Pause to reflect what it is you’re trying to accomplish. If you don’t know what the most important thing you should be doing right now is, then your job is to figure that out.

  • Divide your work day/week in terms of your areas of focus. This removes the need for prioritization of any kind. Then, it’s just a matter of defining the work in each area of focus, and then showing up to do it. I wrote about it in getting work done, and in thinking and doing, respectively.

  • Fight your distractions/impulses by exercising regularly, which improves brain function and focus.

  • Deal with interruptions by being proactive. Remember, we teach others how to behave with us.

  • Spend a few minutes every day in the morning to meditate to make some space in your head. This will help you stay present.

  • Spend some time every day for just stepping back and thinking, and not doing anything.

Don’t double-book your calendar. I know it sounds so obvious, but a lot of folks double book thinking they can magically appear at two places at the same time. They’re trying to do it all. This harkens back to managing commitments with yourself first, and then with others. You have to be realistic about the commitments you agree to. By design, when we say “yes” to one thing at a given day and time, we’re implicitly saying “no” to other things, even if we don’t consciously acknowledge it. That’s just the opportunity cost or the price we have to pay for saying “yes” to that one thing. And because we know that saying “no” to others who’ve invited us is hard, we should keep in mind that when we say no to others’ requests, we’re saying “no” to their requests, and not to the person/relationship. This is an important distinction to make.

Don’t use your phone in bed, as I often found myself doing in the past. There was never a feeling of “Yes, I did that before going to bed”, and almost always a feeling of “I didn’t want to do that”. When we want to start doing something, we want to make it easy for ourselves to do that. When we want to stop doing something, we want to make it harder for ourselves to do that.

When you’re having a personal or professional meeting of any kind, meet the person and give them your full attention. For instance, when you’re having a meal with your spouse, be present, not on your cell phone. You two decided to meet at a certain place and time for a specific purpose (hopefully), and you both deserve your complete attention. And it wouldn’t be fair to either of you when one of you is not giving your entire attention to the meeting. Otherwise, what’s the point of having that meeting? In other words, if both of you have decided to take time out of your busy lives, why would you do anything but use that time wisely?

We have a choice of doing one thing at a time. We’re all capable of doing one thing at a time, it’s just that we choose not to.

I hope by now you realize the negative effects of trying to multitask, the advantages of unitasking, how to do one thing at a time, and why doing that consistently will help you accomplish a few things well rather than doing a lot of things poorly.

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