Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time

This is going to seem ridiculously obvious. It is ridiculously obvious. I feel more than a little silly that it’s taken me over fifty years to get it. But it’s making a big difference in my life and my work, and I want to share it with the rest of the class.

As I’ve been writing about for the last few weeks, I’ve begun learning a secular meditation practice: an evidence-based, non-supernatural practice, supported by research and taught in a medical setting, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. Much of the practice, and the theory behind the practice, has to do with… well, mindfulness: being in the moment, and fully experiencing the moment, rather than constantly getting lost in worries and fantasies and memories and plans and regrets and worst-case scenarios and action-items and to-do lists. It has to do with actually experiencing — for instance — my breakfast, actually smelling the food and tasting the food and feeling the sensation of it, rather than distractedly eating while thinking about a hundred things other than the food in my mouth. When I’m doing the practice, I notice when worries and fantasies and memories and plans and regrets and worst-case scenarios and action-items and to-do lists rise up in my mind; I observe them without judgement (or try to)… and then I gently return my attention to whatever it is I’m focusing on. Whether that’s my breakfast, or the fall of my foot on the pavement, or whatever body part I’m focusing on during my body scan at that moment.

As someone whose life is a little much at times, someone with a whole lot on her plate and some very long to-do lists indeed, someone whose worries and plans and action items can feel overwhelming, this can be something of a challenge. But one of the take-aways from this practice has been a change in my work habits that’s been weirdly profound, one which has been making work both more pleasurable and more productive.

That take-away:

One thing at a time.

If I’m feeling overwhelmed by the forty unanswered emails in my email inbox, my new policy is to not focus on the existence of all forty at once, which is guaranteed to freak me out and paralyze me. My new policy: Open the first email. Read it. Answer it if it needs answering. Move on to the next email.

Similarly, if I’m writing an essay or a blog post, I write that essay or blog post. I don’t check my email every ten minutes; I don’t check Facebook and Twitter every ten minutes. I write. I write until I’m finished, or until I come to a reasonable stopping place, or until it’s lunchtime, or until some specific piece of scheduling demands that I stop, or until Ingrid comes home, or until I run dry and need to take a break.

I know. Like duh, right? How can you read forty emails at once? How else can you read your emails, other than one at a time? But this is coming as something of a major revelation for me. Of course I can’t read more than one email at a time. But I can read one email at a time, while stressing out about the other thirty-nine… or else I can read one email, and give it my full attention, and then move on to the next one with my full attention there as well.

See, here’s the thing. Being a writer means, among other things, that I essentially have an infinite amount of work I could be doing. I could work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, from now until the day I die, and still have a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand more pieces of work that will be left undone. Which means that, whatever it is I’m working on, there’s always — always — something else I could be working on instead. And it’s very easy to get sucked into guilt and anxiety about the ten or twenty or infinite number of other things I could be doing instead… rather than paying attention to whatever I’m doing right at that moment.

And one of the things I realized during a meditation session was that when my mind constantly flutters from plan to plan, action item to action item, it makes me anxious and stressed and unhappy — even if the plans and action items are ones I enjoy and am excited about.

But when I manage to let go of this, I actually get more done. Significantly more. And I get it done better. I get it done with more joy, more thoroughness, more precision, more committment, more engagement, more of myself.

It’s very tempting, in our modern technological etc. world, to try to multi-task. Keep the email window open, and the “actual project I’m working on” window open, and the “other actual project I’m working on” window open, and the Facebook window open, and the Twitter window open, while watching TV and texting and… It seems more efficient somehow.

But there’s a fair amount of research showing that multi-taking is actually very inefficient. It takes more time to do five tasks at once than it would to do each of the tasks one at a time. And it creates anxiety and stress into the bargain.

One thing at a time. Do one thing; experience it fully; finish it; do the next thing.

Related to this: To-do lists. I have a near-constant stream of to-do lists in my head at any given time. No matter what I’m thinking about, a dozen other things can and will jump into my brain at any given second, demanding my attention and making me anxious about whether I’ll forget it. So I’ve been working on externalizing my To-Do lists. When something pops into my head and anxiously demands, “Have you forgotten about me? Don’t forget about me! People will hate you and your entire life will fall apart if you don’t remember to do me!”, I pick up my phone, open my Notes, and add it to the list. Knowing that it’s written down doesn’t stop it from popping into my head again… but it dials back on my anxiety that in all my juggling, I’ll drop this ball, and people will hate me and my entire life will fall apart. I think, “Yes, that’s on the list now”… which makes it easier to let the thought about it go.

And then, when it’s time for me to get to work, I open my To-Do list… and do the things. One thing at a time.

This isn’t just about work, either. It’s about my life. When Ingrid comes home, my new rule is to finish what I’m working on, and put the computer down, and pay attention to her. I can’t work, and be with Ingrid, at the same time. When I try to do both, I suck at both.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But Ingrid just texted me, to let me know she’ll be home in a minute. So I’m finishing this up, and am getting ready to put the computer down and pay attention to her for a while.

Other piece in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety

Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time

19 thoughts on “Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time

  1. 1

    So true! Trying to keep your TODO list in your head is incredibly stressful, and makes it seem much longer than it really is. I went to a CFAR training event last July, and one of the things they taught us was the Getting Things Done system. Now I have an app on my phone that records voice memos and emails them to me, and at regular intervals I clear out my email inbox, triaging each item in turn. I feel much more relaxed and on top of things.

    Also, your recommendation means I am definitely going to try mindfulness meditation. Any particular recommended reading/viewing on the subject?

  2. 3

    Trying to keep your TODO list in your head is incredibly stressful, and makes it seem much longer than it really is.

    Paul Crowley @ #1: That is so true! It’s one of the things that’s been surprising me: when I sit down to go through my To Do list, it feels hugely daunting… but it rarely takes anywhere near as long as I fear it’s going to.

    I’m not reading it myself, but some of the other people in my class are reading a book called Full Catastrophe Living. (Here are links to the book on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.) You can also see if there are any classes being taught in your area: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction seems to be the key phrase to get this through a medical, evidence-based, non-woo source.

    And what is CFAR?

  3. 4

    I am greatly enjoying these posts! The idea of mindfulness is something I have been dimly aware of, but now I have a much clearer understanding. The email paralysis really rang my bell … Thank you for your thoughtful writing generally, and particularly for sharing these specific thoughts and musings!

  4. 5

    They are offering this program at a prestigious hospital near me and I just missed the deadline to sign-up. I’ve been wanting to do this.

  5. 6

    I don’t multi-task well; I learned that early on. So I gave up on any semblance of it.

    It was remarkably freeing.

    I remember a co-worker of mine, several years ago, who also didn’t multi-task well. It was crunch time with a lot of work to be done in a short time, and he was the only person who had the skills for much of it. He kept his to-do list on a large white board. I’d walk into his office, to see if he wanted to go to lunch, and he wouldn’t even look up to see who it was; he’d just automatically wave at the white board and say “add it to the end of the list”. Only after I said “Doug, everybody needs to eat,” would he even look up to see who it was. (I could usually talk him into going out for a quick sandwich.)

  6. 7

    Thank you for posting this series, I really appreciate it, particularly seeing it from someone who’s also doing this as a secular exercise. Not only is there a lot of woo out there that I prefer to avoid, but your perspective on this also reminds me of things I need to do- I especially appreciate the reminder to take things one thing at a time, and need to work on that.

    I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation for the last year or so as part of my psychological therapy (for an anxiety disorder/ trauma issues). I’m still recovering, but the difference it’s made to my mental health has been incredible (have gone from several panic attacks a day to none for nearly a year, I’m generally calmer, I have more energy, I’m in pain less of the time, and I find it much easier to problem solve). My depression has also reduced significantly and I’ve gone from being a chronic insomniac to rarely having troubles sleeping. It’s been life changing. (I haven’t just been using mindfulness- my psychologist uses a mixed approach and I’m taking medication- but I’ve had a lot of therapy and taken medication in the past, and was characterised as “treatment resistant”. With mindfulness, and possibly also some other things my psychologist is using, I’ve gone from treatment resistant and barely coping, to being on my way to a cure or close to it).

    For other people looking for resources, I imagine you could sort of teach yourself. I’d start with mindfulness of breath or body scans- guided meditations- from iTunes or Youtube (there are free resources out there). You’ve got to find one that works for you, but the ones that work for me are John Kabat-Zinn (there are a few on Youtube) and Lisa Dale Miller (there are at least two free podcasts from iTunes). My preference for guided mindfulness meditation is an accent I don’t find grating (which is highly subjective), minimal background noise (absolutely no background music- I find it distracting), minimal instructions (it’s about accepting what is, not worrying about whether you’re doing it right- the instructions should help you get into that state of mind, not judge you), and minimal or no woo. Your mileage may vary. It is something I can do on my own, now, but some days I like to have that guidance, and it’s good there are things out there.

  7. 8

    I have to say that this series is being immensely useful to me, since I’ve been wrestling with a lot of similar issues. I’m trying to handle my own depression, and I’ve started trying to reduce my multitasking for some of the reasons that you talk about here. Sometimes I just find myself trying to do so many things at one time that I panic, and don’t get any of them done at all.

    Externalizing the to-do list is important, but also managing the to-do list is important, too. My lists have a tendency to grow over time, with an item or two from one day transferring over to the next day, and then accumulating. The ritual of going through in the morning and figuring out what’s going to happen TODAY can be very useful.

    One of the reasons that the meditation stuff is especially interesting to me is that, living in Berkeley, words like “mindfulness” have become such red flags. In the same way that “Liberty” isn’t itself a bad idea, but tends to be used a lot by Tea Party types, mindfulness and meditation are things that I immediately associate with sanctimonious New-Age types. And yet, I’m not against them as such. It’s really nice to hear an alternative possibility, and I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  8. 9

    As to the difficulty of multitasking, there’s another bit of computer jargon that may be enlightening: context switching. Putting away what you’d needed for your old task and setting up what you need for your new task.

    So we don’t do context switching very efficiently.

    For my part, I like keeping lots of apps active and tabs open, so I don’t have to restart and reopen them when I want to turn to them. Makes context switching easier.

  9. 10

    Thanks again for continuing to post these. I am becoming more interested in the meditation aspect, and may have to try it out now. It’s so helpful reading your post on this subject and not feeling so alone.

    It’s been said earlier but it bears repeating: Much of what you’re describing is in the book “Getting Things Done” and that was a big game changer for me when I discovered it and read it. Having an inbox where you trust that once it’s written down it won’t be forgotten can really free the mind. I struggle to stay on this system (I’m bipolar) but when it’s working it’s REALLY working.

    Another good science-based book that I read that helped is “Willpower”. There’s some solid evidence in there about this idea of how to get things done, and how we exhaust our willpower in unexpected ways. I suggest that you read it if you haven’t already. Not only is focusing on one task at a time very helpful (GTD) but sometimes ordering the tasks to have the Willpower “muscle” at its strongest for the toughest tasks can really make a difference. Saving other tasks for when you’re willpower is drained can make you feel very different about work.

    Again, I’m struggling to stay on track, so I’m no expert. But your posts have given me a lot and I wanted to give back. Check out those two books if you haven’t already.


  10. 11

    Excellent advice I should take to heart and implement more rigorously in my own life.

    This is a true testimonial not a shill for those looking for an online to do list; has changed my life. It has the one essential quality I’d been searching for to make a to do list work for me; the list is stored in the cloud, but is loaded locally into whatever device you put the app onto, which in turn updates the cloud list every time it’s connected. Upshot being that I always have a current list whether I’m at home, at work, or on a public computer. There are a lot of other things about it I like, but that was the one that completely sold me (and has been working for me since). The apps make it trivially easy to add a note about something when you think of it and have it wherever you need it.

  11. 12

    actually smelling the food and tasting the food and feeling the sensation of it, Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful essay about this, called “The Cookie of Childhood”

    ”When I was four years old, my mother used to bring me a cookie every time she came home from the market. I always went to the front yard and took my time eating it, sometimes half an hour or forty-five minutes for one cookie. I would take a small bite and look up at the sky. Then I would touch the dog with my feet and take another small bite. I just enjoyed being there, with the sky, the earth, the bamboo thickets, the cat, the dog, the flowers. I was able to do that because I did not have much to worry about. I did not think of the future, I did not regret the past. I was entirely in the present moment, with my cookie, the dog, the bamboo thickets, the cat, and everything.

  12. 13

    Having had a meditation practice of over 10 years, but a spotty one, your posts have inspired me to get off my butt and . . . get back on my butt. Thanks!

  13. 14

    Just a reminder for those in the Bay Area Kaiser Permanente has a great program for addressing depression. The 12 week course teaches meditation and mindfulness to take control of your thoughts and ground you in the now; and cognitive therapy techniques, i.e.critical thinking tailored to challenging negative thoughts . It is a very logical, adaptable, secular, non-disease based approach to wellness. Instead of walking away with an RX, people walk away with a tool box of approaches they can use in combating their depression. Often called “Mindful Mood Management” or something similar,maybe other health plans have this approach. Nothing revolutionary in the content ; but the concept of combining these approaches to treat depression is somewhat new. They collect a great deal of data on participants and i assume are getting some long- term impact research answers.

  14. 19

    […] Plus, in sex — sex with another person, anyway — I’m not just working to stay present with my own sensations and experiences. I’m working to stay present with my partner’s. (“Working” is maybe the wrong word, that makes it sound like a chore and it’s not in the slightest, but it’s the best I’ve come up with for now.) I’m working to be as richly aware of what’s happening with my own body as I can — and I’m also working to be richly aware of what’s happening with hers. How do I do both of these at once, while still staying focused on one thing at a time? […]

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