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One Thing at a Time


When I was walking the dogs one morning last week, I thought about calling a friend for a chat while Nugget and Remy sniffed every inch of ground in front of them. But I was by myself, and Remy can be a little much out there in the big, wild world, so I decided to focus on them. I thought then about this piece of paper I have on the bulletin board above my desk. It’s titled “Zen Things,” and I don’t even know where I found it originally, but I’ve had it as a reminder for years. I can’t say I’ve always followed it, but it does show up occasionally in my thoughts, as it did on my dog walk. The first of the 12 items on the list is this: “Do one thing at a time.”

I’m finding that retirement is a great time to clear out some of the cobwebs of old thoughts and behaviors and to see what’s growing in the new light of more open days.

I actually rarely do just one thing at a time, but when I do, I know why it’s important. Last week, for example, after I decided not to call my friend, I just walked the dogs. I enjoyed the cool February morning, I spoke to the people who passed me on the trail, and I was entertained by Remy’s energy and Nugget’s sweet, chill presence. I thought about my life some, but mostly I was just on the walk. One thing. Just walking with my dogs.


Most of us are not only trained to do more than one thing at a time, but we have lives that require it. If you have kids, you can’t simply cook dinner or read a book; you need to help manage them, interact with them, and keep their lives going. In our careers, it’s the same thing. We spend our days simultaneously doing our jobs, helping others, getting caught up, taking on more than we can really do, answering the phone and our emails, and planning for the future. And, there is rarely a reward for focusing on one thing at a time. Rather, we applaud people who can “do it all.”


But researchers say that multitasking is not good for our brains, memories, attention spans, or our physical health. The stress we feel when we’re trying to keep all the plates spinning at all times keeps us amped up and ultimately unsatisfied. When I was working, the more I did, the more I felt like I could do. That false sense of my multitasking capabilities convinced me that because I could do more than one thing at a time, I ought to just keep adding to the list. And I do the same thing at home. I rarely just brush my teeth, for example. At night, I often make a cup of tea while my electric toothbrush does its work. During the evening,, I look at my email or check Facebook while I watch television. Granted, none of those is an essential activity that requires my full attention, but many years of living this way has created some bad habits for me.


I know I have unconsciously convinced myself that I can have a conversation while doing something else, especially if I’m on the phone. If I’d called my friend that morning instead of just walking my dogs, our conversation would have been impacted by my need to keep track of what the dogs were up to. But I often talk on the phone while I’m cooking dinner or driving my car, both undertakings that require a good part of my attention. The result is certainly that one of those activities suffers from my lack of full attention.


None of this is new to me or anyone else. We all know that we do it, and that we probably shouldn’t. But the part of my brain that is set on getting things done kicks in before any other reasoning occurs to me. I keep thinking of a meme I recently saw online: “I don’t want to get older, but I also want every day to end as quickly as possible.” Although it’s really funny, it’s not that far from the truth for me. My taking-care-of-business brain seems so much more developed than the nascent part of me that wants to live in the moment and appreciate what’s right here right now.


I’m finding that retirement is a great time to clear out some of the cobwebs of old thoughts and behaviors and to see what’s growing in the new light of more open days. It’s interesting to see what all has been part of my experience for so long, but much more compelling to consider what new possibilities exist.