This is going to seem ridiculously obvious. It is ridiculously obvious. I feel more than a little silly that it’s taken me over fifty years to get it. But it’s making a big difference in my life and my work, and I want to share it with the rest of the class.
As I’ve been writing about for the last few weeks, I’ve begun learning a secular meditation practice: an evidence-based, non-supernatural practice, supported by research and taught in a medical setting, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Much of the practice, and the theory behind the practice, has to do with… well, mindfulness: being in the moment, and fully experiencing the moment, rather than constantly getting lost in worries and fantasies and memories and plans and regrets and worst-case scenarios and action-items and to-do lists. It has to do with actually experiencing — for instance — my breakfast, actually smelling the food and tasting the food and feeling the sensation of it, rather than distractedly eating while thinking about a hundred things other than the food in my mouth. When I’m doing the practice, I notice when worries and fantasies and memories and plans and regrets and worst-case scenarios and action-items and to-do lists rise up in my mind; I observe them without judgement (or try to)… and then I gently return my attention to whatever it is I’m focusing on. Whether that’s my breakfast, or the fall of my foot on the pavement, or whatever body part I’m focusing on during my body scan at that moment.
As someone whose life is a little much at times, someone with a whole lot on her plate and some very long to-do lists indeed, someone whose worries and plans and action items can feel overwhelming, this can be something of a challenge. But one of the take-aways from this practice has been a change in my work habits that’s been weirdly profound, one which has been making work both more pleasurable and more productive.
One thing at a time.
If I’m feeling overwhelmed by the forty unanswered emails in my email inbox, my new policy is to not focus on the existence of all forty at once, which is guaranteed to freak me out and paralyze me. My new policy: Open the first email. Read it. Answer it if it needs answering. Move on to the next email.
Similarly, if I’m writing an essay or a blog post, I write that essay or blog post. I don’t check my email every ten minutes; I don’t check Facebook and Twitter every ten minutes. I write. I write until I’m finished, or until I come to a reasonable stopping place, or until it’s lunchtime, or until some specific piece of scheduling demands that I stop, or until Ingrid comes home, or until I run dry and need to take a break.
I know. Like duh, right? How can you read forty emails at once? How else can you read your emails, other than one at a time? But this is coming as something of a major revelation for me. Of course I can’t read more than one email at a time. But I can read one email at a time, while stressing out about the other thirty-nine… or else I can read one email, and give it my full attention, and then move on to the next one with my full attention there as well.
See, here’s the thing. Being a writer means, among other things, that I essentially have an infinite amount of work I could be doing. I could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, from now until the day I die, and still have a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand more pieces of work that will be left undone. Which means that, whatever it is I’m working on, there’s always — always — something else I could be working on instead. And it’s very easy to get sucked into guilt and anxiety about the ten or twenty or infinite number of other things I could be doing instead… rather than paying attention to whatever I’m doing right at that moment.
And one of the things I realized during a meditation session was that when my mind constantly flutters from plan to plan, action item to action item, it makes me anxious and stressed and unhappy — even if the plans and action items are ones I enjoy and am excited about.
But when I manage to let go of this, I actually get more done. Significantly more. And I get it done better. I get it done with more joy, more thoroughness, more precision, more committment, more engagement, more of myself.
It’s very tempting, in our modern technological etc. world, to try to multi-task. Keep the email window open, and the “actual project I’m working on” window open, and the “other actual project I’m working on” window open, and the Facebook window open, and the Twitter window open, while watching TV and texting and… It seems more efficient somehow.
But there’s a fair amount of research showing that multi-taking is actually very inefficient. It takes more time to do five tasks at once than it would to do each of the tasks one at a time. And it creates anxiety and stress into the bargain.
One thing at a time. Do one thing; experience it fully; finish it; do the next thing.
Related to this: To-do lists. I have a near-constant stream of to-do lists in my head at any given time. No matter what I’m thinking about, a dozen other things can and will jump into my brain at any given second, demanding my attention and making me anxious about whether I’ll forget it. So I’ve been working on externalizing my To-Do lists. When something pops into my head and anxiously demands, “Have you forgotten about me? Don’t forget about me! People will hate you and your entire life will fall apart if you don’t remember to do me!”, I pick up my phone, open my Notes, and add it to the list. Knowing that it’s written down doesn’t stop it from popping into my head again… but it dials back on my anxiety that in all my juggling, I’ll drop this ball, and people will hate me and my entire life will fall apart. I think, “Yes, that’s on the list now”… which makes it easier to let the thought about it go.
And then, when it’s time for me to get to work, I open my To-Do list… and do the things. One thing at a time.
This isn’t just about work, either. It’s about my life. When Ingrid comes home, my new rule is to finish what I’m working on, and put the computer down, and pay attention to her. I can’t work, and be with Ingrid, at the same time. When I try to do both, I suck at both.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But Ingrid just texted me, to let me know she’ll be home in a minute. So I’m finishing this up, and am getting ready to put the computer down and pay attention to her for a while.
Other piece in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety