One thing at a time

Staying calm and focused under pressure

Urgency and need can be a great motivator. Take it from me, there’s nothing like leaving your well paying job to focus the mind on making your new projects work. But there’s a fine line between useful adrenaline that propels me out of bed in the morning and crushing urgency that turns me into a useless mess. At its worst, I’m a bouncy ball thrown into a small box, ricocheting madly from one thing to the next. Sure, there’s lots of energy in it but it’s frenzied and uncontrolled, simultaneously moving in every direction and getting nowhere at all.

There are a few signs I’ve learned to look out for that tell me things may have slipped from motivated productivity to ricocheting bouncy ball.

1. I start saying ‘I have to do X’

Actually, this is usually more like ‘I have to do X, Y and Z and then I have to make a start on A, B and C.’ It’s also likely that I will be shrieking this from my study in response to the innocuous inquiry ‘Honey, are you coming to bed?’

2. I become very impatient.

My electric toothbrush has a timer that lets me know I have brushed my teeth for two minutes. When I’m in the grip of urgency, two minutes seems like an eternity. Sometimes, I’ll even convince myself that the timer is broken.

3. The tabs in my internet browser multiply like bunnies

I’m changing careers and right now I can’t get enough of reading about people who have done just that. But that’s the beauty/evil of the internet. There’s always more. More stories. More information. More advice. With the breadth and depth of information available, how can we ever know enough? Before I know it I’ve put twenty-three books on a wish list, watched seven videos from a career coach, read an article about someone who quit being a banker to become a baker and looked up the location of that new local bakery. It’s usually not until I next open my laptop that I see the evidence of my frenetic mental marauding: 27 open tabs.

Recently I’ve struggled to keep a handle on my sense of urgency. But for me, urgency and overly enthused action can be just as useless as complete disengagement. Activity can easily be mistaken for action. These are the things that I do to slow myself down and find that sweet spot where motivation meets focus and calm determination.

1. Reconnect with my priorities

When I use the language of ‘have to’ I’m really losing faith in my own priorities. I’m scared that I’m not doing enough; that I’m doing the ‘wrong’ things; that in order to get anywhere, I have to do everything. It’s like taking a bit of everything from a buffet, ultimately you end up eating curry with a side of tuna salad. Not pleasant. So this is what I do. I write down every single task that’s fighting for my attention. Then I circle the three most important things to me. Just three. It’s impossible to do this with out reconnecting with what really matters. And the best bit? Often I realise I don’t need to do a lot of the things on my list at all.

2. Focus on the pleasure of one thing at a time

Hoo boy, this is hard. I strip as much multi tasking out of my day as possible. Reading while eating breakfast? Nope, just chew that toast. Listening to podcasts while walking to the train station? Nope, just feel your feet in your shoes, one step after the other. This is about dialling down the mental stimulation, kind of like throwing a blanket over a birdcage. If my mind is still racing I’ll work in some structured meditation but usually focusing on one thing at a time is a really effective method of cultivating calm throughout the day for me. I never regret doing it.

3. Exercise

When I feel like I’m not getting through enough in a day, I’m likely to strike exercise from my schedule. But it’s a false economy. It’s really hard to rush around like a maniac (even mentally) when you’re physically stuffed. I think it has something to do with using up adrenaline. Go and ask a doctor if you want to know why it works, all I know is that it does. So I sweat it out, knowing that when I’m done I’ll feel calm, focused and ready to work.

Do you sometimes find yourself stuck in the grip of urgency? What do you do to bring yourself back to focused productivity?  Join the conversation

30 April, 2014

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