Focus – the challenge single tasking

Written by Mandy Mercuri 
January 10, 2024 
A gorgeous browna nd white dog out for a walk in the forest on a red lead.

For this year, I have chosen to select a word to guide me each month

January was ‘focus’. I had been recognising how often I was doing two things at once. Believing I was being productive, I would often find myself getting confused, overwhelmed, distracted, and, embarrassingly frequently, a real clutz! It would seem like I was getting too much input and not enough focus. So, this got me thinking – is multitasking a myth? Time to be my own guinea pig and run a little experiment to kick start the year.

My hypothesis - Am I more productive if I just do one thing at a time?

Making the decision to attempt one task at a time was one thing, actually doing it was much harder.

Some of my common multitasks included:

  • walking the dog while plugged into a podcast/audio book
  • driving with music blaring (or the same podcast/audio book)
  • eating while watching my latest streaming binge fest
  • having a bath with a book (and snacks!...okay, and wine!).
Mandy Mercuri, owner and mindfulness coach, laughing at a bench outside in the sun.

Cutting down to just one thing

This was hard. I wasn’t used to it. I didn’t like it.

Some highs and lows during the experiment period….

  • Food preparation. Often meal prep was a time when I would put music on or (more often) be lost in thought about plans and other musings. I was much more aware of what was in front of me and the sharpness of my new knives. No cut fingers – a bonus!
  • Distracted driver alert! Once driving home, I was being very good and NOT listening to music, but my mind was super active. Ironically, I was planning what I might write on a promotional bumper sticker when I turned up the street to my old house. The one I haven’t lived in for three years! Oh dear. Fail.
  • Walking adventures. I noticed so many things I would have otherwise missed - how many butterflies congregated this time of year, the exotic and beautiful plants in my neighbours gardens, the texture and patterns of the clouds. This is what mindfulness is all about – finding opportunities to notice and pay attention to what is right here.

Bringing my focus to single tasking allowed me to discover some interesting reactions. Angry thoughts surfaced. ‘Awww, but I want to be listening to something as well!’ (yes, the voice had that whiney tone!). I would try to ignore these thoughts, but they were incessant. This isn’t enough, I need to do something else as well. I noticed the strong tug of craving.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), there is a concept called Urge Surfing. Most of the time I could notice and acknowledge the urge, then direct my focus to just the single task. This required me to ride the wave of the urge – to surf with it – allow it to rise, crest and fade. Honestly, at other times the urge took over (I gave in, paddled like crazy to follow that urge) resulting in me grabbing my phone, the remote, the snacks etc. If you want to read more about ‘urge surfing’, try this book by Russ Harris – The Happiness Trap.

When I forced myself to ride the urge, and do just one thing at a time, I felt flat, often unsatisfied.  Just like the urge, I was able to notice and acknowledge the associated my emotionsthey also eventually faded. When an activity is so habitual and you do it automatically, you’re anticipating it, right? In her book, ‘Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience’, Brene Brown describes disappointment as unmet expectations. So, when you make a conscious choice to NOT do that thing, you understandably feel disappointment.

The experiment brought up a range of feelings

I often felt like a petulant child who was not getting what they wanted, pouting and making the ‘cross face’. I had to be patient and kind with this inner child. I imagined taking her by the hand and comforting her, ‘It’s okay, little one, not this time but you will be okay’. Seems the multitasking was a deeply ingrained habit for me! As I explored and struggled with the discomfort, I felt deflatingly ineffective. The task at hand just wasn’t enough. Eating a meal wasn’t enough, I should be doing more. So interesting…

The voice that was saying, ’Come on, you don’t have time to waste!’ had me getting sucked into the ‘doing’ vortex again (even after I had vowed to break up with achievement). While I will definitely spend time reflecting on the origins of this limiting belief, I also found myself wondering – what if I was to let go of that cinched grip on productivity. Would I become a better wife, parent, friend? Would I become a better writer? A more wholesome person? I need to remind myself I do have time. This moment. Here. Now. By cultivating my present moment awareness, I am being productive. This is valuable and productive work. No matter the focus of my attention, if I can bring some spaciousness, perspective, curiosity and compassion towards myself, regardless of the activity I am engaged in, the effort, the output, that is time well spent and honored.

Mandy Mercuri watching the sun set over the sea.

So, the result of my experiment, I think it’s safe to say that probably one thing at a time is beneficial, here’s why:

  • Noticing (and resisting) the incessant urge to do MORE. This is a practice applicable to other areas in my life too – (building and cultivating new healthy habits – the urge to drink alcohol, eat sugary or carb-y foods that I know are not good for me).
  • Cultivating my own mindful presence (I mean, I’m a MBSR facilitator, come on lady!). I can use these moments to practice to embody my own heartfelt value of awareness.
  • It keeps coming back to this – it was my hypothesis after all. I believe single tasking was a more effective use of my time (less distractions, accidents etc) and enabled me to engage in more values-based pursuits.

And there’s no denying, sometimes, you just need to get shit done, juggle the realities of life. This month helped me discover that I can only do what I can, when I can and do my best in each moment. Slow and steady wins the race anyway, right?

So, maybe you would like to try exploring this for yourself, some questions for reflection…

  • What’s happening right now?
  • How many balls do I have in the air, am I trying to juggle multiple tasks?
  • What does the urge to do multiple tasks feel like?
  • Can you ignore the pull of the phone, the remote, the headphones, the “more”?

And always, friends, just bring some curiosity and playfulness – notice what’s happening and go gently.

I'm Mandy Mercuri

I'm here to help. I'm a mindfulness coach that can help you on your own mindfulness journey, to work through the challenges life throws us.
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I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the unceeded lands where I work and live, the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. I recognise their enduring connection to the lands, waters and culture. There is so much we can learn from them about being present and walking mindfully through Country and life. I pay my respects to Elders past and present. There has been and remains prejudice and ignorance, including my own, yet I look forward to the future where our great nation is strengthened and grounded by Voice, Treaty and Truth.
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