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The Principle of One Thing at a Time

By Audrey Seymour

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One thing. At... a... time.

What happens for you when you hear that phrase? Do you take in a breath and feel relief at the permission to do just that? Or when you try to slow down do you feel anxiety and even more pressure?

If you are not feeling overwhelmed by the demands on your time you are a rare creature indeed. Feeling overextended is epidemic these days.

This form of stress arises from unrealistic expectations around how available we think we can be and how much we imagine we can accomplish. Our brains are actually only capable of following one single thread at a time, so when we think we are multitasking we are simply task-switching at a very rapid pace.

I regularly hear my clients being hard on themselves because they didn't meet their objectives for the week. Whether you get distracted or your priorities shift, the only way you can be realistic is to adapt your expectations based on past experience. And then, only do one thing at a time.

What would it look like, to do only one thing at a time?

  • Break down the goals or tasks that you're avoiding into smaller stages and steps.
  • Set one priority for any given block of time. Your one-priority-focus time might be an hour or a stretch of hours. This is a good time to turn off your phone and email! In order to accomplish more than one thing in a day, choose the order you'll use to tackle each one of them. Enjoy the reward of completing one before you start the next.
  • When spending time with someone special in your life, turn off all distractions and fully be present with them to enjoy the multidimensional richness that becomes available

What stops you from doing only one thing at a time?

If you want to refine your focus and efficiency, but something keeps stopping you, get curious about what part of you has a different agenda. Negotiate and help that part of you find a better strategy to get their needs met.

In an exploration of this issue with a client I'll call Jim, we found a part of him that got anxious whenever he turned off his technology. This anxious part held the core value of being immediately available to anyone who might need something from him. Since Jim grew up with a very unavailable mother, this be-available-at-all-times part of him wanted to prevent the same suffering for others.

Once Jim understood the motivation and values behind his behavior, it became easier to choose a better strategy to minimize stress for others when he was unavailable. Jim ultimately decided to set clear boundaries with his staff and his boss, negotiating expectations for a 2-hour turnaround time instead of an instant response.

Which area of your life feels overextended and could benefit from one-thing-at-a-time?

© 2013 Audrey Seymour. All rights reserved.