Zen Thing #1: Do One Thing At A Time (Day 113)

Months ago, I printed out a sheet entitled “Zen Things” after I read it on social media. It’s a list of twelve simple commands about daily living that emphasize paying attention to your life while you’re living it. All pretty basic stuff but powerful nonetheless.

The list is mounted above my desk, so I skim it every time I sit down to my computer. Rarely do I stop to process any of the commands despite my belief in how they can help me be happier in my own life. So, I’ve decided to examine each one in the blog, over the next twelve days.

The first is “Do one thing at a time.”

Being a Zen wannabe, I pride myself on not being a multi-tasker. Ever since the term came into existence and people proclaimed their talent at being able to do several things at the same time, I stuck up my nose at the concept. Busy, busy, busy does not a life make.

Yet. My life, despite my better image of myself, is made up of constant multi-tasking.

Making breakfast is not only about cooking or preparing. I’m also cleaning out the dishwasher and checking my email and listening to music or watching a video and feeding the dog. This morning, as soon as I noticed all I was doing, I tried to do only one thing — make breakfast — but that freaked me out.

The sideline behaviors have become habitual and it felt weird to only put my attention to the one thing. Also, I couldn’t help but think of all the time I was wasting doing one thing at a time, when I currently have the multi-tasking down to a science.

So why bother doing one thing at a time? Especially when I am much more efficient multi-tasking?

I started thinking about how my mornings play out and realized that right after I wake up, I do one thing at a time: bathroom, teeth brushing, neti pot, drinking my lemon water. I move in a peaceful way through each task and feel good when each job is done.

It is when I begin making breakfast that the good feeling begins to dissipate. I constantly talk to myself, trying to keep track of all I have to do, and let my mind slip into the anxious state of “can I possibly get everything I set out to do today done?” Even though I am accomplishing several tasks at the same time, it is during this time that I start making mistakes that frustrate me and begin the buildup of anxiety that grows as my day moves forward.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have knicked my finger when cutting up vegetables for my omelette because I am trying to get the dog’s bowl filled and the dishwasher emptied before the veggies go into the pan, and I have to turn my attention to cooking. Sometimes I get so distracted by an email that I’m shocked back to reality by the pan smoking or the smell of burnt toast. These mistakes end up making me less efficient than I think I am, and the whole approach sets in motion the stress that I always think motivates me, but in fact, agitates my system, leading to multiple mess-ups.

All that extra time I think I’m saving by doing everything at once is actually a false assumption. If I cut my finger while chopping vegetables, I am forced to stop, wash and treat the wound before I can get back to the tasks at hand. Similarly, if I get distracted and burn my food, I both waste good food and have to spend extra time to cook up another meal.

It may feel weird (and lazy) to make breakfast without taking care of all the other jobs that need to get done, but if I look at it realistically, over the long run, it is more efficient and mentally and physically (fewer cuts!) healthier.

The anxiety I felt this morning when I tried to stop multi-tasking reminded me of how I felt the first few weeks that I meditated. Sitting still and bringing my attention back to my breath when I noticed that my mind was wandering was extremely difficult. At times, I wanted to stop almost as soon as I began because I felt like I needed to be in motion, and the turning down the dial was making me feel physically ill. But after the first few meditation practices, I felt a little better, and after a few more, I felt some normalcy in the stillness and attention. I still have days when I meditate and can’t calm myself down and want to give up, but I’ve learned over time that the benefits of lessened anxiety is worth a few uncomfortable sessions.

So I will try again tomorrow to focus only on making breakfast when I am making breakfast, and take care of the other jobs, one at a time, after I am finished eating.

I imagine it won’t be easy, at first. But if I do one thing at a time the next morning and the next one and the next one, maybe over time, I will improve my efficiency while also lessening my anxiety.


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