Just One Thing

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with what to do. Even when there isn’t a global crisis! Most likely you have a long to-do list and many potential projects floating around in your head like I do. I have ideas in a “proper” task list on my computer, starred emails, many notes on my phone, and a collection of post-it notes and scraps of paper around my desk.

So how do I get through that mess? In normal circumstances I have a burst of organisation energy with which I slowly go through the other locations and transfer those things into my proper task list and get great satisfaction out of checking things off as I work through the day. These are definitely not normal circumstances right now.

It’s too easy to be paralysed in this state, and that feels terrible the longer it goes on. The slightest bit of forward movement can feel impossible when I’m overwhelmed. The only way to get momentum is to force a little motion. That’s when I remind myself “just one thing”. I put aside the entire to-do list with its octopus arms and I do one thing.

It really doesn’t matter if it is the best thing to do, or the most important. (Of course there are some things that are truly urgent but this is about dealing with a long list of not-really-urgent tasks.) One thing, and I work on it until it’s done. It’s important to choose a small task so you can get to the dopamine satisfaction of “done” soon.

For me by far the best choice is something physical. Sure, I get some satisfaction out of cleaning out my email inbox or my downloads folder, but I get way more of a buzz when it’s something I can see is done. The physical result makes it clear to my brain that I am now in action. Plus doing something like pulling up weeds or putting away clutter involves a little bit of physical work and it helps when my muscles get involved.

Almost always you’ll find yourself continuing on to another task when the first is done. If not, at least you got one thing done, which is good. Often I surprise myself with getting five more things done nearby once I’ve broken the paralysis. Motion and then momentum. It’s basic physics!

  1. Choose one small physical task.
  2. Don’t spend a long time picking the “right” one.
  3. Start it right away.
  4. Don’t let yourself stop until it’s done.
  5. Take a moment to admire the clean surface, the folded laundry, the sorted drawer. Feel the satisfaction.
  6. Ride that wave of completion energy on to another small, physical task.

Whether you’re reading this during the global lockdown or long after that has passed, take action now. Have a look around the room you’re in, or just let your mind wander for a moment. Almost certainly you’ll feel an impulse. Listen for a whisper in your brain like “well I’ve been saying for weeks I wanted to clean out the tupperware cupboard”. Go for it! You’ll feel better.