A Mindfulness Practice for Doing One Thing at a Time

Busy schedule have you running on empty? Explore this mindful practice for coming down from a busy mind — without shearing meaningful items from your to-do list.

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It’s rare to have a conversation these days without hearing the word “busy” repeated over and over, often in elaborate and colorful ways: “I’m swamped,” “I’m stuck in the grind,” “slammed,” “redlining,” “crazy,” “jammed.”

These phrases point to a mental state that we’re all craving some relief from. And yet many of us seem strangely attracted to it. In fact, busyness is often presented as a modern-day status symbol.

We tell ourselves that we don’t want to be so busy. But we’re also unwilling to make the changes to become significantly less busy. And some of us even have judgments about people who aren’t as busy — perhaps that those who don’t have full calendars are lazy or lonely (after all, who wants to miss out on the action?).

One thing we know about the state of busyness: it’s the product of a distracted mind.

One thing we know about the state of busyness: it’s the product of a distracted mind. To put it more precisely, we feel busy because we have a habit of doing one thing while thinking about the next.

This mental habit is so ordinary that it goes unnoticed most of the time. We’re unloading the dishwasher but thinking about wiping down the counters. We’re showering but thinking about the next text we’re going to send. We are adept time travelers, physically here in this moment but mentally thinking about the next.

This habit doesn’t just arise at the micro level of day-to-day tasks. It also arises in our thinking about long-term life stages and events. We’re working at one job but considering the possibilities of the next. We’re having dinner at our favorite restaurant while mentally planning our meal at the next desired spot.

Our default mental state is to lean forward, off the axis of time. It is like we are standing on our tip toes looking over our own shoulders into the future. We need to interrupt the ordinary mind state that leaves us feeling overwhelmed by the demands of life. In other words, we don’t need to change what we do but how we do it.

The One-Thing-at-a-Time Meditation Practice

We have found that the best way to make this shift is through the “One-Thing-at-a-Time Meditation.” The practice is simple: pay attention to the thing you’re doing while you’re doing it.

To help you build this practice into a habit, we recommend using a simple strategy called Notice-Shift-Rewire that we have developed in our work with busy professionals.

  • The key is to first Notice when you’re caught in the state of busyness.
  • The next step is to Shift gears and bring your attention back to the present moment by focusing on the task at hand.
  • The final step is to Rewire, savoring the experience of being fully engaged in what you’re doing.

Like formal meditation, the only way to experience the full benefits of this practice is by building it into a regular habit. So here are some tips:

How to Make Present-Moment-Awareness a Habit

  1. Create a cue — One of the key insights from the emerging science of habit-formation is that having a cue, or trigger, is essential in building new habits. To build some momentum early in the day, our recommendation is to use brushing your teeth as your cue. When you pick up your toothbrush each day, Notice your surroundings. Then Shift by bringing your full attention to the sights, sounds, and sensations of brushing your teeth. Finally, Rewire by savoring this experience for just 15 to 30 seconds. Having a cue, or trigger, is essential in building new habits.
  2. Use labels to ground yourself in the task at hand — Once you’ve initiated the habit using brushing your teeth or some other habitual experience, it can be helpful to use mental labeling to keep your mind grounded in the moment. When you reach for the towel, you might think “towel.” When you go to the sink, “hand washing.” This can be a helpful way of interrupting mind wandering and staying grounded in the task at hand.
  3. Carve out “stimulus-free” moments — Listening to podcasts, news, audiobooks, and other piecemeal bits of multimedia can distract us from the task at hand. If you notice that your day is full of stimulation — that you rarely, if ever, give yourself space to breathe and just “be” — it can be helpful to carve out moments to unplug from your devices and savor some silence.
  4. Slow down — Speed and busyness go hand-in-hand. When possible, see if you can Notice your pace accelerating. Then Shift by slightly adjusting your pace — no need to turn everything on a dime. Instead of rushing as you walk to the bathroom during a work break, let yourself enjoy the stroll.

If you’re successful in creating a new habit out of this one-thing-at-a-time meditation practice, you should begin to notice a shift in your experience of busyness. Your day may still include the same long list of to-dos. But your mind may experience more space and leisure. And that might lead you to say something shocking in your next conversation — something like, “I actually don’t feel all that busy right now.”

The Stoic’s Cure for the Busy Brain

Research in psychology confirms this ordinary tendency of the mind. In a 2010 Harvard Study, psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that we spend around 47 per cent of our day mind wandering — lost in thoughts about past and future. Significantly, they also found that the more we get caught in this state, the more unhappy we feel.

This may be why so many of us feel so busy so much of the time. Even when our bodies are still, our minds are racing through the day, fueling that out-of-control feeling that we don’t have enough time to do what needs to be done.

So how can we ease this tension?

The typical approach is to cut down on the sheer number of things you have to do. This might involve limiting the time you spend on email, text, or on social media. It might involve changing your relationship to work or finding ways to offload some of your responsibilities.

We don’t need to change what we do but how we do it.

Of course, this approach can have profound impact. But, for many of us, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to escape the sometimes-chaotic circumstances of life. The outer constraints of kids, jobs, mortgages, and technology leave us with a long list of daily to-dos that may be impossible to alter.

And that’s where the second solution becomes so powerful. The key to this strategy comes to us from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “We are disturbed not by the things that happen,” he observed, “but by our thoughts about the things that happen.” Put differently, we’re not busy because of the length of our to-do list but because of our thoughts about it.

This more Stoic cure for busyness doesn’t involve changing our outer circumstances. We don’t have to leave behind the stresses of modern life by moving to Costa Rica or Bali. Instead, it’s focused on overcoming busyness at the level of mind.