The Brain Science of One Thing at a Time

By Audrey Seymour

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 should 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. The more often you switch between tasks, the more time and energy is wasted in the transition times and remembering when you last left off.

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 that look like, to do only one thing at a time?

  • Start by honoring the way your brain works rather than fighting it. Short-term memory can only hold around 6 or 7 things in it at once, so update your tracking and planning systems to take advantage of the power of buckets and sub-buckets.  Aim for each level having on the order of 6 or 7 thing.
  • Break down your goals or tasks  into smaller stages and steps that can be accomplished in one block of time.
  • Set one top 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.
  • Match your most challenging creative tasks to your most productive time of day. Some find their peak hours early in the day, and for others it’s in the afternoon or evening.
  • Match your routine commitments to your least productive time of day. I used to handle all my commitments to others first and then treat myself to my writing projects as a reward at the end of the day, but by then my muse had fled!
  • Be willing to disappoint people sometimes who may be used to you dropping everything to take care of their request.

What stops you from doing only one thing at a time? Give yourself permission to experiment and you are likely to be amazed at what happens.

If you want to try this, 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.  As we dove deeper into what was driving his behavior, he saw how strongly he was projecting his own wound onto everybody else.

Once Jim understood the motivation and values behind his behavior, it became easier for him to see that ultimately what he really wanted was just to minimize stress for others who depended on him.

Jim then decided on a new strategy to set clear boundaries with his staff and his boss, negotiating expectations for a 2-hour turnaround time instead of an instant response.

Where are you feeling overextended, to try the principle of one-thing-at-a-time?