This morning, my mind was a swirling, chattering, babbling mass of To Dos, all clamoring for my attention, like a bunch of lunatic, caterwauling animals. The result? I sat at the breakfast table staring into my coffee cup, crippled by indecision. All of the To Dos were important. How would I ever get them all done? A day of multi-tasking sounded hideous. Finding flow seemed impossible.
Simplify the To Do List
Then I remembered an article I’d read once, where the author talked about greatly simplifying his daily task list, the amount of things he was trying to do in each category of his life. For example, instead of listening to 10 different podcasts, he chose one and stuck with it.
With so many things on our To Do lists in life and at work, how can we effectively get any single one of them done? How can we feel good when we ask ourselves to go in a million different directions at once? Simplifying the drag of To Dos on your attention sounds really healthy, right?
Hello, I’m In Context-Switching Hell
We say the exact same thing in Agile and Lean. Context-switching, multi-tasking, too much work-in-progress, means it’s impossible to get into a state of flow, to truly focus on or enjoy any one thing. There’s a joy in the feeling of uninterrupted focus as you do this one thing. When you complete the task, having stayed in flow for a large chunk of time, it feels as if your thoughts, the brain babble, has stopped, gone quiet. You feel refreshed, even elated, at the creative immersion of focusing attentively on this one thing. You think, “Wow, that felt awesome!”
And yet, does anyone, at work or at home, actually get in a flow state with any frequency? I’m willing to bet, usually not. Even though we know and understand the benefits of focus, we have a hard time allowing ourselves to get there. There’s just too much to do!
Why Do We Avoid Flow (or Rest)?
There are many reasons we don’t allow ourselves to do one thing at a time. The world has this pervasive feeling that working on multiple things at once is better. We have not fully embraced the benefits of extreme focus. Somehow, we’ve learned to believe that if we’re not running around tackling everything at once, we’re not working hard enough or accomplishing enough. Or maybe, for some reason, we’re afraid to sit quietly with ourselves in that deeply creative flow state.
We also have a really hard time choosing to do nothing, to just rest. I personally have been astonished by how much fresher I feel, and more able to tackle a To Do, if I just take a break, let my mind wander and rest from the backlog of tasks.
In companies, the reason we avoid flow or rest could be because that’s the company’s culture. Companies that say they’re Agile are usually just doing the ceremonies and activities like daily standups, sprints, maybe retrospectives and sprint reviews. They haven’t truly embraced an Agile state-of-being, which emphasizes sustainable development and simplicity. They haven’t applied Lean thinking, which focuses on eliminating waste. Maybe the company has 10 number priorities, and so no one can focus on any single thing. As a result, we run around each day feeling drained, overwhelmed, exhausted, and dissatisfied.
Pick One Thing
So, this morning when my mind was babbling incoherently, and I was feeling overwhelmed by all the things I need to get done today, I made myself stop.
Take a deep breath.
And pick the number one thing I need to do first. Forget about all of the other To Dos. I chose to give myself the joy and satisfaction of doing and enjoying this single thing first, immersing myself in it. Then, if I get this thing done, I can pick something else to work on next. (The thing I picked was writing, and I ended up writing this article in about an hour, way less time than I usually take!)
Because really, there is no such thing as multi-tasking. You cannot actually read an email, write a line of code, pay attention in a meeting, respond to a text on your phone, listen to 10 podcasts, work on 10 projects, all at the same time. You can switch back and forth from one task to another, juggling them like hot potatoes, but you can’t do all of them at once. Attempting to multi-task is killing your productivity and flow. You end up doing everything half-ass and not really feeling good about any of it.
Today, instead of doing the usual context switching that I know we all do, pick one thing. A single thing. Let all of the other things sit quietly in your mental backlog. Get that single thing, even it’s really small, done first. Then move on. Rinse and repeat.
Let me know how it goes!