Doing one thing at a time is not easy for me. Most of the time I am doing at least two things, for example, writing and drinking coffee or eating lunch and reading a mag or walking along and mulling over something. Often, I am doing more than two things: washing up, getting one child a snack, talking to a different child, and checking the time.
Does doing one thing at a time bring any benefits? I’m trying to find out by practicing. And I’m practicing in response to guidance on the Smiling Mind app that I put on my phone a few months ago as part of my new migraine management approach.
I’ve had many brushes with mindfulness trainings, starting years ago when it was called ‘meditation’, and then got packaged as ‘transcendental meditation®’, and popularised through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn – I have a CD set of 4 of his Guided Mindfulness Meditations, which I used to use.
Suddenly in about 2014 ‘Mindfulness Training’ became the latest corporate fad, and swarms of experts swooped in, at some expense, to train the workforce in … what? My scepticism suggested at the time, that it was for making us more able to cope with corporate cultures and performance monitoring – a kind of induced calmness in the, all too common, face of a world similar to ‘The Office’ or Dilbert.
I was resistant to the request that the leadership team have mandatory mindfulness training, and endured the sessions with heels dug in – the opposite of the required mindset of ‘paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement.’
I am not alone in my scepticism of the corporate mindfulness wash. An article in 20 August 2022, New Scientist points to research on the topic of mindfulness training in schools. One in-depth study mentioned found, ‘The use of this specific school-based mindfulness curriculum, as a universal intervention for young people in early adolescence, is not indicated.’ This study involved 8376 students in 84 UK schools. It found that teenagers who received 10 mindfulness lessons reported more symptoms of depression than those who just had their usual lessons.
Research by Gaelle Desbordes finds that ‘[Mindfulness] studies have shown benefits against an array of conditions both physical and mental, including irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But some of those findings have been called into question because studies had small sample sizes or problematic experimental designs. Still, there are a handful of key areas — including depression, chronic pain, and anxiety — in which well-designed, well-run studies have shown benefits for patients engaging in a mindfulness meditation program, with effects similar to other existing treatments.
She goes on to report that “There are a few applications where the evidence is believable. But the effects are by no means earth-shattering. We’re talking about moderate effect size, on par with other treatments, not better. And then there’s a bunch of other things under study with preliminary evidence that is encouraging but by no means conclusive. I think that’s where it’s at. I’m not sure that is exactly how the public understands it at this point.”
Holding my scepticism in check, I’m finding the Smiling Mind sessions are, possibly, bringing me benefit. The ‘one thing at a time’ comes up in a 4 minute ‘Day Starter’ session which guides you into setting your intentions for the day. It’s very calming. I find myself repeating at intervals through the day, ‘Where possible do one thing at a time’.
Instead of, in trying to assuage the feeling of not getting stuff done, by doing things simultaneously, I’ve found that aiming, and now sometimes achieving, doing one thing at a time – is a useful discipline. It means I finish something which is calming.
The benefits of one thing at a time are explored in an article by Oliver Burkeman, who in January 2021, said firmly, ‘The single most effective ingredient for a happier and more meaningful 2021 is … to improve your capacity for doing only one thing at a time.’
As I’ve found, he says doing one thing at a time is difficult, and he asserts, ‘So a big part of the skill of doing one thing at a time is learning to handle the discomfort associated with knowing what you’re not getting done.’
He describes the benefits of one thing at a time, ‘For a start, plenty of research testifies to the costs of “task-switching”. When you flit between activities, you waste time and energy regaining a state of focus again and again. Worse, each activity becomes a way of avoiding every other activity. So, when a task feels difficult or scary – as tasks that matter often do – you can just bounce off to another one instead. The result isn’t merely that you make a smaller amount of progress on a larger number of fronts; it’s that you make less progress overall.’
I’m practicing the one thing at a time approach on small day to day tasks. It sounds easier than it is. I noticed today, that I did stick with making a cup of tea from start to finish. An alternative, pre-practice might have been to boil the kettle, then go off to water a plant, then return to the put the teabag in the cup (and reboil the kettle).
Adopting ‘One thing at a time’ as a philosophy of life, is a whole different ball game. I’m not certain I could do that. It might mean giving up on something I enjoy and have stretching goals for, but don’t really have the time to do properly – beekeeping or gardening, or studying writing, or actually writing, or running – all come to mind. Which would I take as my one thing? Right now I try to do all of them. In fact, the main, and most important thing, is attention to my family: grandchildren, children, partner. Perhaps actually recognising this and then taking one other ambition is more realistic than, as Burkeman puts it, ‘wallowing in comforting fantasies of one day achieving them all.’