Activity monogamy or, the joys of doing one thing at a time

When multi-tasking leads to half-hearting, it’s time to remember the old adage – less is more.

I have a confession to make: I am a cheater. A while back, I was spending some time with Robert Ludlum and – I don’t know what I was doing – I played around behind his back with… Charles Dickens. And I can’t say I was thinking about Bob the whole time. I really can’t. It wouldn’t be so bad, but I then cheated on Charlie with Alain de Botton. And then, to add insult to injury, I added Jasper Fforde and Dan Brown to my little literary… what, erm, six people – does that make a love hexagon?  Yes, I had no fewer than five books on the go at one time.

Read me! Read me! Read me, now!

While I love skipping from tea with Pip and Miss Havisham to baddie-chasing with Jason Bourne, philosophising with Alain, feeding marshmallows to dodos with Thursday Next, and cracking codes with Robert Langdon, the effort of keeping up with all the characters and the plots was somewhat exhausting. I honestly don’t know how bigamists and love rats do it. I actually turned reading, one of the purest and simplest of pleasures, into a source of stress. The books became obligations and things to put on my ‘to do’ list. When I picked up one to read, I was faced with the feeling of “but I’ve got so much to get through, where do I start?”

The urge to double- or triple-up extends to most areas of my life (for my beloved, who will read this, I assure you I’m talking only about activities and not beloveds – of those I’ve only one). I have always been a rather enthusiastic multi-tasker. I like knowing that dinner’s in the oven as the washing machine is going, and I’m finishing off the ironing while also catching up on the latest shenanigans on Grey’s Anatomy. It makes me feel that time is being optimised. Equally, I file emails while on the phone at work; I make lists on the tube, I return phone calls while walking home from my yoga class. In all these situations, I feel like I’m making good use of what would otherwise be ‘dead time’.

Fidelity feels good!

But recently, I made the decision to streamline and simplify my life, and that involved reading just one book at a time. Novel, huh? Sorry, couldn’t resist that one. I forced myself to eschew all new tomes until I had finished one and, do you know what? – I loved it. I enjoyed the book I was reading so much more. I got through it faster (so I didn’t lose interest) and could remember the intricacies of the plot (so I didn’t spend time leafing back and trying to remember why the brass key was important and what family Lord Thingy belonged to). Most importantly, I rediscovered the joy of giving my full attention to just one thing and losing myself in it.

The experiment worked so well, I’m now extending it to other areas of my life. The bid to streamline, which started with unsubscribing from all those e-newsletters I regularly delete without reading and paring down my belongings, has turned into a resolution to do one thing at a time. If I’m on the phone, I’m on the phone. I’m not sorting the darks from the lights in the washing bin or straightening out my sock drawer. If I’m writing a report at work, I no longer stop every two minutes to read emails as soon as that nasty little blue envelope appears. The result? I actually enjoy each activity more, and I get things done faster and better. I’m also calmer, no longer frazzled by keeping an eye on several boiling pots, and – here’s the kicker – I find I have more time. The next step is obviously to cut back on the sheer number of things I try to do each day. That’ll be a challenge, but worthwhile, I suspect, since it turns out less really can be more.

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