Learn To Single-Task Again

tolkein-bread-quoteIn 2010, I crashed and burned mentally. The official diagnosis involved adrenal fatigue, and many factors led to my state of exhaustion.

One of the biggest involved having too many commitments and going in too many directions. A constantly-divided focus led to a state of overwhelm and overload.

To recover and heal, I gave up a lot of poor habits and replaced them with healthier ones. That’s the only way to really heal from adrenal fatigue.

One area needing a major overhaul involved my belief in multitasking as an operating system. The Toxic Impact of Multitasking needed eliminated. Its replacement? Learning to single-task again.

The Brain’s Desire

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Our brains want to think deeply and creatively. As any multi-tasker knows, neither is possible with any consistency when your brain tries to focus on a multitude of different tasks at the same time. Instead, we end up reacting to life and living only a surface-level existence.

But, as Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., tells Forbes, with concerted effort…

Anyone can leave the “chaotic addiction of multitasking behind” and see “immediate and immense” benefits as well as an increase in creativity, energy and focus.

I’m living proof of this truth.

Single Tasking Habits

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In addition to recommending adequate rest and exercise, Chapman gives three steps to reestablish single-tasking as a habit.

  1. Give your brain down time. Build in breaks throughout your day, and be sure to take at least a yearly extended break (called a vacation in case it’s been so long you forgot). Like a muscle, our brains need time to rest and recuperate. Ever feel like you make poorer decisions as the day goes on? We must choose to combat Decision Fatigue if we have any hope of not falling prey to its talons of dumb… bad… stupid… decisions.
  2. Focus deeply & eliminate distractions. Just like a person can’t go from couch to 5k instantly, deep focus needs worked up to as well. I certainly recognize that distractions find us all too easily. But with practice, we can develop the ability to focus deeply and attract fewer distractions. The more you reduce multitasking, the more you’ll excel at focusing.
  3. Make a to-do list. A to-do list kept a crash and burn at bay for many years and keeps me from regressing more often still today. Not only a tool to promote focus, a to-do list is also a terrific way to track progress. Remember too that you’ll get better at making and using to-do lists as you perfect what works best for you.

Commit to Change

Make a choice to break your multitasking addiction and instead to work toward a singe-tasking life. Be stubbornly determined to do so. Once the benefits begin, your belief in what Chapman claims and what my own experiences show, will increase.

As with any change, commit to it to make it work. Alter daily habits and admit that the way you’re working now isn’t the best option and that maybe you can trust the example of those who have gone before you on this journey.

The Role of Commitments in Balance

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OVER-Commitment & OVER-whelm

When I look around at my too-busy friends, I think to myself, “Never again. I don’t want to go back there.” That “there,” is an OVER-loaded, OVER-whelmed and OVER-committed life. It’s feeling constantly tired, behind schedule and often simply inadequate. I was “there” once to the point of crash and burn, and I swore I’d never even get close to be that OVER again.

Yet, I do. Get close, that is. Far too close. I somehow let myself get OVER-committed all too easily, leading to OVER-whelm. My focus then gravitates to a to-do list and away from relationships. Projects become more important than people.

Yes, all to often, I find myself “there,” and asking, “How did I get here… again? How did I once again get so out of balance by becoming again OVER-committed and OVER-whelmed yet again?”

The Heart of Commitments

The heart of making commitments involves doing what you say you’re going to do when you say you’re going to do it, right? Making a commitment involves pledging or promising, obligating yourself, to someone or something. When you commit, you bind yourself; you promise you’re going to do something, usually under a reasonable time frame.

But OVER-commitment leads to broken promises and missed deadlines. It leads to disappointment and letting others down and perhaps even to low self-esteem with the realization of failure to keep promises.

Commitment Trends

Approaches to commitments seem to be following one of three trends these days. Many people just don’t fully make commitments anymore; instead, they contribute but can’t be fully counted on regularly. Others OVER-commit and see no problem with not meeting commitments or just partially meeting most commitments. Do you fall into either of these trends?

Another trend involves feeling trapped in OVER-commitment. This involves basically keeping commitments but often missing deadlines and never having the time for anything anywhere near excellence but instead settling too often for “good enough.”

Feeling trapped in OVER-commitment, often accompanied by its cousin OVER-whelm, involves a high level of stress from the never-ending to do list and the complete lack of any time to truly rest. Letting go of commitments seems impossible because doing so involves letting others down, saying the word “no.” At the same time, the pace of OVER-commitment is simply too much to sustain.

How do commitments impact balance?

Commitments provide one gauge of the existence or absence of balance in our lives. Too few commitments results in boredom and idleness, maybe even feelings of insignificance and unimportance, while too many commitments result in lack of consistency and settling for less than your best. Both extremes lack balance, both fail in effectiveness.

Instead, perhaps an approach to commitments with the goal of effectiveness may be what we need to reach and maintain balance. When I find myself “there” – in an out-of-balance state – that stressful place of OVER-whelm again, my focus is more on efficiency instead of effectiveness. In other words, I’m looking to accomplish as much as I can as quickly as I can and not looking much at whether I’m doing what’s most important. I’m not considering what activity makes my life the most effective.

Moving from Efficient to Effective

Somehow, focusing on effectiveness, on how my time is best spent rather than on how much can I get done, keeps OVER-commitment and OVER-whelm at bay. But how do we know the best way to spend our time?

The answer to that question, my friends, is truly at the heart of living a life of effective commitments that lead to balance. How do you think a person can move from a focus on mere efficiency to one of effectiveness?

Let’s figure this out together and help each other keep from going “there” again… to that place of OVER-commitment and OVER-whelm. I don’t much like it there.

Just Do What’s Next

3-19-13 Things to doWe all make our “to do” lists a bit differently, but the same basic premise exists behind them. Maybe you use a less structured process like the one I detailed in Living in the Details: My Daily Plan. Or, maybe you prefer a method like the The Daily Game Plan: A Must Use Tool! that Chris Patton at Christian Faith at Work uses. Perhaps you prefer using a Master Task List approach like the one Michael Hyatt details in Before You Create a To Do List.

Regardless of the method you use, you’ve likely a lot to accomplish just like the rest of us. And maybe sometimes, maybe often, you simply don’t know where to begin. What tasks do you tackle first?

Setting priorities can be a struggle. So much, maybe everything, is equally important. So, where do you focus first?

When I taught at a community college, organization was crucial for juggling 4 classes and 80 students, and everything was very deadline oriented. As a result, I learned the importance of developing and then consistently applying the following 3 time management principles.

  1. 3-19-13 Long to do listRefuse to let being overwhelmed stop you. See my post Too Overwhelmed to Become Less Overwhelmed for more on how to develop a system even in the midst of being overwhelmed. We all have too much to do at some point, so learning to work through that is crucial to overall success and personal satisfaction.
  2. Do what’s next. Ask yourself, “When is the next due date?” For example, if I have to teach Sunday School on Sunday and have to write a post for the Thursday before, the post obviously comes first. You’ll still feel like you can’t get everything done at times, but eventually this “Do what’s next” state of mind creates an “I can only do what I can do” attitude that keeps you moving forward.
  3. Be ready with time fillers. Only have 5 minutes before the kids get home from school? That’s enough time to sweep the floor, switch laundry or empty the dishwasher. Have a list of items you can do during these in-between times. Instead of doing a mass house cleaning and getting all of these things done before moving on to other work, I integrate them into small times slots within my day. This transfers well into an office with things like making copies, editing a document, reading an article or answering an email as possible time fillers. I personally get more accomplished with this approach.

These principles probably seem painfully simple to some people, but they truly create a structure to help keep me focused and from being overwhelmed. Some people schedule and script their day more, but doing so never worked well for me. But, as I mentioned in The Big Picture: My Own Life Plan Method, the best system for managing time and reaching goals is whatever works for you.

So be encouraged! Keep trying different methods, keeping what works and ditching what doesn’t. Steal ideas from others, knowing that your approach will be a combination of what others do and what you learn through trial and error.

And in those overwhelmed moments when you want to run and hide, say a little prayer, then “just do what’s next.” I literally say this phrase to myself, and this approach has kept me sane in the midst of chaos many times in the past 15 years.

DISCUSSION: What advice do you have for managing everything that needs done in a day?

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