One Thing at a Time

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a coworker at a party. About work, because I dunno, that’s the kind of small talk coworkers engage in. As it was the start of the New Year, we talked about goals, resolutions. He asked if I had any. I said,

“I really want to try and focus on one thing at a time. Just one — not switching back and forth between tasks.”

And saying it out loud, I knew it was true — this was an important thing to keep myself from feeling depleted by the end of each work day. So I made the resolution to focus on only one thing at a time — to finish one task before moving on to the next. Which sounds simple, but in the modern-day work environment, when your whole job revolves around a computer, and that computer is assaulting you with ten things at once — just finishing one task can suddenly require the most Herculean effort you’ve ever put forth.

And then, as fate or luck or whatever would have it, I was went this article:

Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion …. we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. — “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain

And this:

Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. — “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain

If you have five minutes, go read the article. It highlights so many issues — but sadly, not many solutions. And after reading it, I WANTED solutions. I am so very aware that I engage in most of these behaviors — keeping Communicator open so people can reach me, reading emails the second they arrive in my inbox, propping my phone up on my desk so I can respond to a text the second it appears — and I can feel the toll it takes on my brain. I feel the mounting anxiety at not being able to get any actual work done. I feel the exhaustion that comes at the end of the day. I feel the hamster in my brain spinning and spinning but not actual going anywhere.

So I’m doing what I can. I’ve turned off the notifications on email. I’m predetermining a set amount of time to focus on certain tasks. I’m setting my Communicator status to “Do Not Disturb”. I am purposely reducing the distractions that come flying at my brain.

I’m trying to do the same at home, too. Set aside 30 minutes — 30 specific minutes — for writing. Read that book instead of fart around on the internet. Purposely decide that I’m going to watch TV for 60 minutes. (Because sometimes that’s what your brain needs after a long day.) Oh, and I’m trying to leave my cell phone in the living room when I go to bed. Checking Facebook right before sleep can NOT be good for cognitive function.

One thing at a time. How did such a simple idea become so complex?

30/30 Check-In

Here we are, day 15 of my 30/30 Writing Challenge — writing for 30 minutes a day for 30 days to raise money for Seattle’s Hugo House. I’m proud to report that so far I haven’t missed a single day, even though some days were like pulling teeth. A brief check-in, then, on lessons learned from the challenge thus far.

(Oh, and a reminder — the whole “point” of this, aside from creating good writing habits, is to raise money for the awesome Hugo House. If you’re so inclined, you can donate here.)

Lesson #1: It is much, much easier than it sounds like to get in 30 minutes of writing a day. I admit to being a little bit daunted by the number, especially considering how my writing schedule had been going recently. But once you commit to it… you guys, there are 30-minute chunks everywhere. In the morning before work, on your lunch break, while dinner’s cooking. I knew it before, but this has just highlighted the fact — the time is there, if you prioritize. (And here’s the usual caveat how I don’t have kids, I’m sure it’s harder with kids, but you know — same general theory still applies.)

Lesson #2: Earlier is better. Again, this is something I already knew (are you seeing a theme here?). Last year, while finishing the first draft of my book, I got up early every morning to get the time in. Now, I find myself returning to that schedule. There have been two days where I skipped the morning, thinking “Oh, I’ll have time to write later.” Both times, it bit me in the ass. Days have a way of spiraling out of control. The earlier you can check off the writing, the better. Plus, then you have the benefit of already having accomplished something with your day, before it’s even really started. (I find this true with running, too.) I love being able to head into work and think, “No matter what else happens today, I already accomplished this.”

Lesson #3: Getting up early sucks. Look, it just does. Maybe not for some people, but every time that damn alarm clock goes off, I want to smash it over the head and go back to sleep. Instead, I turn it off and roll my sorry butt out of bed. (Related tangent: my dad hated his childhood alarm clock so much that he saved it and, as an adult, used it for target practice. Early-morning dislike, it runs in the family.)

Lesson #4: If you work consistently, you get shit done. 30 minutes a day adds up. Prior to this, I had edited 3 chapters of my book. Now I’m up to 7. It took me 15 days to make that leap. Admittedly, the editing is getting easier the further I go (ooph, the beginning of the book was rough, you guys). But this rapid accumulation is an obvious result of sitting down and working.

Lesson #5: It’s about priorities. Lauren at I’m Better in Real Life wrote a great blog post about writing seasons. It’s a reality of life that, over time, priorities shift. You expend more energy in one facet of your life than another. I’m prioritize my writing right now — which means, yes, some other things may drop off a little bit — and that’s ok.

At this point, I’m thinking I may continue the 30 minutes a day, even after the 30/30 Challenge is done. Which, I mean — we’ll see. It’s still early days. I’m halfway there. But really, there’s no downside. Whatever you do, whether it’s writing or coding or creating whatever, consistent work habits are key.