Actionable items or key take-aways: Do one thing at a time. When you are doing that, do not worry about other items on your to-do list. That reduces your effectiveness and can even be dangerous as you can see in this article.
Most people are not good at time management. A lot of people think it is just their problem. That guilt and shame make addressing the problem really difficult. I am not sure how and why procrastination became hard-wired into human psyches. Maybe, it served some evolutionary purpose. Maybe, it is the side effect of trying to “plan ahead” — a trait unique to us humans. In any case, procrastination does not serve us positively.
I have met people all the way from ages 10 to 90 struggle with: a) getting started with projects (at home or at work), b) being able to stick with a task and see it to completion, c) feeling growing anxiety and guilt from being “behind” and d) delivering sub-optimal results as a result of the procrastination.
I struggle with time management. My issues arise primarily due to fatigue (mental and physical), a fear of not being able to do a “perfect” job, a fear of not being “good enough”, and the easy availability of distractions that make it hard to deal with the issues head-on. Over time, I have learned lessons that helped me cope with this struggle. Some lessons from other people and some lessons from experiences. One such experience is detailed below. It taught me the lesson of “one-pointed attention” that helped me train my mind to become more focused—one essential part of being able to manage one’s time.
One pointed attention. A phrase I heard for the first time from a colleague at a startup where I was working in 2002. He was an ardent follower of the teachings of Eknath Easwaran. Easwaran was a literature professor at Berkeley. He later went on to teach meditation and concepts related to it—concepts such as one-pointed attention. The concept is very simple—when you are doing A, focus just on A. Don’t multi-task. Very simple. But, as a young person filled with energy who was convinced that she could do anything, I did not understand the value of the lesson. Until a fateful day in 2005.
An evening in Spring 2005 around 7pm. I was cooking dinner. I had a pan of oil on the stove. I had my laptop on the kitchen counter. I was prepping for class. I heard my son who was less than a year old cry. I went to his crib in another room to check on him. It turned out he needed a diaper change. As I got working on that, it slipped my mind that I had a pan of oil on the stove. When I returned to the kitchen, it had caught fire, the microwave above it melted down, and the cabinets next to it started to burn. It was a disaster. I called 911 and then picked up my son and told my mother-in-law who was visiting to leave the house. Standing outside the house, I wanted to kick myself. How could I have been so stupid?
The firemen took care of the fire and one of them told me that this kind of thing is very common especially when women are distracted by the phone.
This incident impacted my future thoughts and actions. I recalled the concept of “one-pointed attention” from my startup days and really understood what that meant. I started applying it religiously to my life.
In the Kitchen
For starters, I never leave the stove on when I leave the kitchen. That was the first obvious change. One unexpected side effect of this was that a) I felt mentally lighter when doing other tasks. I understood how a part of my brain had been trying hard to remember that there was food cooking on the stove. Now that worry was eliminated, b) I started enjoying household chores. In the past when I did chores while worrying about “more important” tasks on my to-do list, I resented the chores and tried to rush through them. With one-pointed attention, I was now “mindful” of the task. (More about mindfulness in another post) I actually started enjoying doing dishes, for instance. Washing dishes became a time when I would actually pay attention to the warmth of the water and soap running on my hands as I enjoyed the satisfaction of seeing my dishes shine again. And c) my mind worked subconsciously during the time I worked on tasks that did not need much brain power to work out solutions to problems/issues I was facing. It was as if I were giving my brain a much need break to mull over things.
When I help my kids with homework, I am with them. I am less impatient with them and actually enjoy the task of teaching them and seeing the lightbulbs go off. Kids are happy to see mom being more relaxed and goofy around them.
If I am prepping for lectures, I do just that. If I am talking to a student, I focus on the conversation. When I teach, I am in class with the students both physically and mentally. Looking back, I now see how this training in one-pointedness helped me when I had worries consuming my mind. The moment I would stand up in class to teach, the worries disappeared. The moment class ended and I sat down, the worries came back. I am sure I still have ways to go to get better at handling stress. However, I am glad I am at least able to compartmentalize enough to be able to function even in difficult times.
All in All
One-pointed attention has made my life calmer, saner, and more productive. I feel that this helps me give people the attention and respect they deserve. I am convinced that, for certain kinds of people (like me), multitasking is overrated. When doing one thing at a time, one can do full justice to that task and get it done sooner and better than when trying to do too much at the same time. Concluding with this lecture by Easwaran on one-pointed attention in his own voice: do listen and comment with your thoughts and experiences.
1. Focus on one thing at a time
2. Give the task your full undivided attention and you will find yourself actually getting more done compared to when you try to multi-task.
How do you manage to overcome procrastination? Let us know down in the comments.
This article originally published on GREY Journal.