What will it be today?
• Start and finish preparing dinner (and doing the clean-up)?
• Start a paper for a class and finish writing it?
• Start paying bills and finish getting them into the mailbox?
Oh, golly, why are all of these things so hard to make happen? Staying focused on a project of any size is easiest when we remember that one word, "No." Steve Jobs knew what he was talking about, and if we want to feel accomplished at the end of the hour, the end of the day, and the end of a lifetime, it seems that saying no is going to be a big key.
When friends share photos of their laundry sitting in a chair waiting to be folded, I laugh with them because I understand. I've gone so far as to just run a load back through the rinse cycle and the dryer, while I stand by waiting with hangers and determination. Why is it so darn difficult to do, though?
We want to do it all, see it all, experience it all, and our attempts are preventing us from doing much of any of it well. We are multi-taskers. It was something of which I thought I should be proud - bouncing a baby on my hip, talking on the phone, and folding laundry, while watching the morning news, but it turns out all the places I was trying to focus probably suffered. Does that sound familiar? Maybe you are watching something on television, scrolling through social media or playing a game of Words with Friends on your electronic device, and talking with someone else in the room, and when the television program is over, you can't remember the best parts. It's because you were multitasking, and research is showing us over and over how detrimental it is to our lives (and to our relationships when people lose your undivided attention).
It's been almost a decade since the Stanford study, but I'm guessing not too much has changed. They were sure they would be able to show how heavy multi-taskers were more able to filter out unimportant information than those who were considered light multi-taskers or single taskers. They even tried different tests, but nothing changed -- the people who normally do one task at a time were able to pull out the important information much more efficiently than the heavy multi-taskers. What everyone thought was a positive attribute (being able to do several things at once) is not, in most cases. Information is lost, and in relationships or in jobs, that information could be very important.
It seems we have not been introduced to the word no as the positive part of life it can be. My friend calls to see if I have time to visit, and I drop what I'm doing and head out the door. If I had said no, I might have finished the project I was working on, the laundry, or getting things ready for dinner, but I'm always glad to get to visit. I will say that my mother is really good at this, but I didn't realize what a plus it was until I was researching for this. If she is doing laundry, she stays with it until she finishes. If she is preparing dinner, she finishes what she's doing, instead of setting it down to go tend to something else. Maybe she hasn't verbally said no to other things, but by her choices, she clearly has understood not taking on something else until she finishes what she has started. Yes, I'm making a note of one more thing my parents were pretty smart about.
It's summer, and there are so many activities and opportunities calling to most of us, especially when the weather is nice. Are we prepared to use no to our advantage? Is it possible we will accomplish more and feel better about what we do accomplish? I think based on research; we can offer a resounding yes.
1. Use a timer. I don't know how I've lived this long and never heard of The Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo named his technique this because of the red tomato timer he used to break down his tasks into bite-sized pieces, which he calls Pomodoros. His technique is pretty famous, apparently, and is very effective: choose a task, set a timer for 25 minutes (you don't have to have the tomato timer), check off that Pomodoro on a sheet of paper when the timer goes off, take a 5-minute break, and repeat. After 4 Pomodoros, take a longer break (25 minutes is suggested).
2. Turn off distractions. If you find you are distracted by your cell phone's notifications or emails and breaking news alerts on your computer (and most of us are), use the tools on the phone and computer to change the notification settings. Unless it's someone in your immediate family or a really close friend, there isn't much that can't wait until your next break.
3. Eat the frog. Mark Twain said that if we eat a live frog at the start of the day, nothing else we have to do that day will be any worse (harder). You and I don't really need to eat a frog, but we can metaphorically do that when we do the task first that we dread the most. For example, I don't love cleaning the toilet, but once that is done, the rest of the bathroom is a piece of cake for me.
4. Know when to say yes and no. When you decide to spend the afternoon cleaning out a closet, say yes to the closet until you finish and say no to the television show or the meeting up with friends who could meet another time.
Whenever I fail to complete a task, I always hear a voice in my head saying, "You had one job." I am hoping to complete a few tasks and quiet that voice in the weeks ahead. I hope you, too, will try doing one thing at a time. You might be surprised how much more effective and efficient you are when you embrace the "less is more" approach to tackling your tasks.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.