☝️One thing at a time.

Feeling overwhelmed with all you have to do? When the world is spinning off its axis, the to-do list seems never-ending, the obstacles keep popping up, and things feel out of control, it’s easy to succumb to the stress and pressure of it all.

Burning the candle at both ends is not sustainable for long, so when the going gets tough, I fall back on one important survival technique: one thing at a time. Here is one tactical way I personally accomplish that. Maybe something here can help you put a stop to the overwhelm and get your focus back on track, too.

Single-Tasking “Better in Virtually Every Way”

According to productivity and focus author Chris Bailey, “Doing more than one thing at a time is a great way to become busier, it invariably makes us less productive. Single-tasking is the opposite of multitasking, and it’s better in virtually every way. Our brains may initially resist single-tasking because it’s less stimulating. But working on one thing at a time lets us dive deeper and do a better job at each task. This way we don’t have to spread our time, attention, and energy—the three ingredients of productivity—across many things at once. Single-tasking lets us create more attentional space around our work in the moment,  which lets us think deeper, make more connections, work more creatively, and find more meaning in the work.”

So how can you get off the hamster wheel, stop the overwhelm, and allow yourself to focus on only one thing at a time?

The Master List

Call a time-out. Make a master list of all the things you must do that are taking up mental space. A single, unified list of work, extracurricular, and personal demands creates a single, linear stream for prioritization. It helps to feel like we’ve wrapped our arms around all we need to do. It helps to take a beat and gives a sense of agency and control. 

The Triage

Prioritization is hard – especially when everything feels like an emergency. We must accept we are human with limits on our attention and time. To calm the chaos, we must sort the master list in order of priority. Your criteria may differ, but here are a few I take into consideration when I’m triaging:

  • Is it time-sensitive with a deadline that others are counting on me to meet?
  • Is it an external deadline, or an internal deadline?
  • Is it a quick solve I can clear off the list and get out of my brain?
  • Is it a longer-term play that’s overwhelming me? Should I break it down into smaller, tangible milestones for iterative progress?
  • Is it lingering and creating drag on my attention and anxiety, and will clearing it out help me breathe?
  • Is there a clever way to speed this up and knock it out faster? Via tools, crowd-sourcing, etc.?
  • What can I ask for an extension on, ask for help on, outsource, delegate, or otherwise extend?

The Purge

Since I’m already taking a beat to reorganize and reprioritize, I try to clear out some of the small, lingering items quickly in one quick push. Group like tasks – customer service calls, scheduling meetings, doing people’s annual reviews – to get into that headspace and achieve speed and scale with less attention-switching costs. Then jam! It’s a great “hackathon” method to shorten that giant list you just created. From there, the list becomes more manageable, my worry subsides, and I can better tackle one thing at a time with more intent and focus.

I don’t focus on what I’m up against. I focus on my goals, and I try to ignore the rest.”

Venus Williams, American professional tennis player