If you are meditating, reading, planning and dreaming, you will likely entertain lots of ideas along the way. You may even emerge with a list of ambitious goals to pursue.
This is above and beyond the more mundane to-do list of everything that must get done. Dishes to wash, clothes to launder, gardens to weed. As we build out our mental checklist, we can start feeling overwhelmed. It is a traffic jam in the brain. The psyche, and mental vehicles are moving in fits and starts, that is, if they are moving at all.
Our brains have amazing capacity, but in the moment, they don’t always have enough RAM for all the sub-routines we are running. Like, when do I pick the baby up from daycare? Or, do I have a mask in the car for my upcoming trip to the grocery store?
We’ve talked previously about how to manage the pressure of operating at cognitive capacity or beyond–take a break, stop piling on when you’re almost through your list, first things first, etc.
Today I’m talking about focus, about doing one thing at a time. We use other words to describe this: Being present. Being mindful. I find that language helpful.
Because my brain can handle many ideas, I am often fooled into thinking that I can focus on many things at once (an abuse of the definition of focus, I know). The result—my brain gets blocked. Anxiety builds. What about this? What about that? And inevitably, out the window is One. Thing. At. A. Time.
My self-prescribed therapy:
- I wake up early. Thanks to my sugar challenge, I now get up at 5am. I am officially awake before anxiety is. I exercise immediately, either running or yoga, depending on the day. I study a sacred text, pray, meditate, and journal.
- Then, I am off to my desk where 3-4 things that must get done, await me. I try to start with 50 minutes focused on the book and then I take a walk. On days with appointments, it’s easy to keep track of time. But on my less structured creative workdays, I find it helpful to set the timer on my phone. I have 15 minutes for this task, then 50 minutes allotted for the next one. It’s time to take a break. And so on.
- Don’t check email. Email has its own time slot, so it doesn’t overrun and consume the time available for other things. The goal is to be focused on the one thing that is before me in the moment.
- Sometimes I stop, become quiet and think, “What is the one thing that I need to do right now?” It is my experience that when we center ourselves in this way, we will instinctively know. I believe it is God who lets us know; you may say it is the universe or that your gut tells you. Regardless, when we are able to identify the one thing that is most important in the moment and then focus on it, there will be time for everything else. In fact, I find that when I focus on one thing at a time, I feel like I have more time.
We’re inclined to multi-task and to think it’s an important and valuable skill. However, studies show that it’s actually quite inefficient. It’s not easy to override years of programming, but it does make a difference.
When you’re holding only one ball at a time, you’re less likely to drop the ball.
Do one thing at a time.
What do you do to focus? How do you apply the practice of doing one thing at a time?
Our podcast guest this week is Mary L. Gray, whose book, Ghost Work, explores an unusual subject. I was introduced to Mary by my colleague, Sabina Nawaz. The book, coauthored with Siddharth Suri, reveals the people behind the technologies we use every day, the ghosts behind the machines. Mary has disrupted herself and will open your mind to something I bet you haven’t thought about. A perspective you didn’t have.
You can listen to Mary’s full episode here: https://whitneyjohnson.com/mary-l-gray/
As always, thanks for being here.