I have the reputation, at least among some friends and family, of being ‘good in a crisis’ – such as (to give a somewhat minor example) the day last year, deep in lockdown, when a shard of flying flowerpot ended up halfway through my partner’s hand, sending her to hospital and upending our finely calibrated work and childcare plans for the week. In such circumstances, I never get stressed by having to change my plans, or add to the anxiety of the situation by freaking out. I just get on with whatever needs doing, calmly and resourcefully.

Naturally, I’d love to attribute this to my being a stunningly compassionate, courageous and flexible person. But the real explanation, I’ve come to realise, lies in the contrast with what I’m like the rest of the time: prone to second-guessing myself, wondering whether or not what I’m doing right now is what I ought to be doing, and whether I’m trying hard enough – to the general irritation of myself and anyone else involved. 

In an emergency, that whole tangle of self-absorption lifts, because “what needs to be done” is usually so obvious that nobody, not even my inner critic, could reasonably disagree. For a certain kind of person – and I’m definitely one of them – this total absence of ambivalence feels freeing, even disconcertingly elating, never mind the fact that what’s unfolding around me is unquestionably bad.

The wrong lesson to draw from this, I think, would be that we ought to try to live and work with this kind of single-mindedness in everyday life, too. That would be nice! But the whole point about emergencies is that they’re unusual. The rest of the time, it often really isn’t clear what you ought to be doing; and whatever you decide to do, you probably are neglecting a hundred other equally worthwhile things in order to do it. 

No – the right lesson has something to do with the narrowness of focus involved. What’s true of both the crisis situation and the daily situation is that at any given moment, you can only ever actually be doing one thing. The problem is that in everyday life we stress ourselves out – spurred on by economic forces, of course – by trying to do more than one thing; wondering if whatever we’re doing is the right thing; and driving ourselves ever harder because we’ve got one eye on all the other things we feel we need to fit in by Friday afternoon.

In the end, the only point of any personal productivity system, goal-setting technique or “life planning” exercise is to help you make a slightly better decision about what to do, right now, so you can mentally put everything else to one side for the time being and immerse yourself in that one thing. Which explains the extraordinary efficacy of a method that’s so embarrassingly simple I hesitate to mention it, but which never fails to deliver me from procrastination or grouchiness to clarity:

1. Think of something it would be worthwhile to do right now, without any expectation that you know what might be “best”. (And don’t forget that it could be “take a nap”!) 

2. Write it down.

3. Do that thing.

4. Cross it out.

5. Go back to 1., writing the next thing underneath the one you just crossed out. Repeat (forever). 

And just to spell it out: the point here isn’t “stop multitasking and focus on one thing, and you’re a bad person if you don’t!” Rather, it’s that (with a few technical exceptions) you never actually are multitasking to begin with. Instead, you’re just anxiously switching your attention rapidly between things – because you’re not sure which one’s more urgent, and/or because you think you’ll get them done quicker that way, which is almost never true. 

If my experience is anything to go by, it’s staying connected to the unavoidable truth of this situation – aided by things like the technique described above – that enables you to let go of the ambivalence and second-guessing, and to fall back into reality as it actually is. The liberation isn’t in making yourself focus on one thing at a time. It’s in realising that’s all anyone could ever hope to do.

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