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One Thing At A Time
Don’t accept a loss before it’s necessary.
Last summer I wrote about Monotasking as a way to become more productive, more creative, and reduce procrastination. This post also focuses on taking things “one thing at a time”, but the perspective is a little bit different - zoning in on stress reduction and mental health benefits. There’s some irony in the end result leading to that same productivity and procrastination reduction despite it not directly being the focus.
When I wake up the morning of what I perceive will be a busy and stressful day, sometimes I strive under the pressure. I get amped and motivated to tackle the challenge of getting everything done. Pressure is a privilege is one of my favorite quotes.
Unfortunately, motivation is fickle and unreliable. It’s not always there for me when I want it to be. And so, there are plenty of days with a jam packed schedule where I wake up and instead of striving under the pressure, I wilt.
This “wilting” can take a variety of forms.
I may procrastinate. I don’t know if this is a subconscious form of self sabotage (“I just didn’t have enough time to get this all done”) or a defense mechanism (“If I don’t get started, I can delay experiencing the difficulty of the day”).
Or I may make concessions before I even get out of bed. “Well I don’t have to do this today.” Or, “I’m too busy to go for a run today, so let’s scrap that.”
When I find myself fighting this inertia to start the day, I endeavor to tackle the day “one thing at a time” and to simply get started.
It’s challenging to block out the list of items we may have to take care of, but the truth is, no matter how much I stress about the collection of tasks in front of me, I can never finish more than one of them at a time anyways.
So, instead I try to start with the simplest tasks and force tunnel vision upon myself.
“Brush your teeth.”
“Make the bed.”
“Go for a walk.”
While these examples are meant to be general ideas, the going for a walk example is a good one to hone in on. This can be difficult to do because even a 10-minute walk on these types of days can seem like a luxury you don’t have time for. But there are a couple of positive effects. The first is that exercise and being outside is positive for your physical and mental health period. The second, for me at least, is I’m subconsciously reducing the pressure of the day by taking care of myself. When I’ve “got too much to do” and avoid any self-care, it can send the opposite signal.
Ironically, when I am doing a bad job of taking things one at a time and in my own head about the day before it starts (convincing myself there’s no time for a walk), I often spend more time procrastinating than I would if I just got up and went for the walk without thinking too much about it.
After getting the day started and a little bit of self-care, positive momentum starts to build. That motivation that betrayed me with its absence in the morning returns.
Or, as I get through more challenging or higher stakes tasks, I find that my fears of a busy day were overblown. When I actually blocked out time to focus singularly on a task, it didn’t take me nearly as long as I expected. All of a sudden this daunting day becomes pretty manageable.
Now this won’t always happen. Sometimes I still have to make concessions. Some days really are that busy and that stressful, and I may not be in the right state on that particular day to handle all of it. That’s okay.
You can’t win the day mentally in bed before you get started, but you sure can lose it. The “one thing at a time” mantra helps me to avoid taking premature losses.
This is one of many cases where mental health can mirror physical health. I remember when I was growing up in school, there’d be days where I had a sore throat and some congestion and didn’t want to go in. My mom would often make me get up, brush my teeth, take a shower, and eat or drink something before deciding whether I should go to school or not.
More often than not, by the time I did those several things, I would feel a lot better. My throat wouldn’t be as sore. My congestion would dissipate. My energy levels would rise.
Avoiding premature losses can be applied to more than your daily task load. It’s pretty comparable to a long run for me when I am training for a race. There are days where I am well motivated to tackle that challenge, and the run is easy.. There are other days where even getting out the door is a slog, especially in the winter time when it’s cold, and merely getting dressed for the run or getting mentally prepared to step outside into the weather is challenging. It can be tempting to push the run off to another day or to make the decision to cut a 10-mile run down to a 5-mile run before even starting.
Again, this is where taking things one at a time and having tunnel vision helps. Get dressed. Get your shoes on. Do your warm up drills. Get outside. Ease into the run. Don’t worry about running 10 miles, just run the mile you’re in.
10 minutes into the run, your body has warmed up and the intimidating cold has become a non-issue. 3 miles into a run, the lethargy you felt may be gone, and you end up doing the full 10-mile run. If not, you still have the flexibility to cut your run short. But at least you gave yourself a chance, rather than deciding to capitulate before taking your first step.
A final note on all of this - tackling a tough day or a tough run or whatever it is can be helped by having the right mindset, but it’s way easier to have that right mindset or to be randomly motivated in the first place if you get enough sleep. I’ll probably have a post on sleep at some point in the future; it’s something I’ve become slightly obsessed about over the last few years and remain shocked at how poor the education on sleep is for kids growing up and then for those same kids as adults.
The bottom line is we can set up how our day is going to go by doing the right stuff the night before, and the most important factor in all of that is sleep quality and quantity.
Hopefully, this post helps someone out there to power through some tough mornings, and I’d love to hear how other people deal with feeling overwhelmed by their day or a specific task.
Finally, here’s a Tweet from @DailyStoic that is applicable to this post: