I sat down at a table next to a woman in Starbucks, head buried in her computer, tapping away furiously. On a second glance I recognized her as an acquaintance. She looked up and we exchanged pleasantries. Not that she felt much like casual small talk.
“I’ve just quit my job that I hate but my boss says I’ve got to work a two week notice period otherwise she will label me ‘un-hirable’. I can’t stand her and I really want to explore other options soon.”
“What are you working on now?” I asked.
“I’m writing up summaries of all the accounts I work on to make it easier for my boss when I go.”
“That’s a good idea.” I said. “It’s always best to leave on a good note. Burn no bridges and all that good stuff.”
“I just feel so overwhelmed though. You know I snapped at my son this morning for no real reason and I just can’t feel confident in the future, like nothing’s ever going to be just easy. My to-do list is completely out of control and I am stressed out all the time.”
I reminded her of a quote by American author, Henry David Thoreau: most men lead lives of quiet desperation and agreed that this sense of being overwhelmed has reached endemic proportions. We all appear to live our lives these days with a higher stress level, elevated anxiety and rising panic, barely suppressed. It’s really the new baseline reading for our generation.
“First,” I said to her, “finish up the client notes and email them to your boss. This action shows great initiative on your side. I’m proud of you that you are going above and beyond in difficult circumstances.”
She duly did it and we chatted more.
“I feel,” I went on, “that the answer to being overwhelmed is one thing. We all have to-do lists a mile long. We start working on something, jump to something else, and never get anything really done. What has worked for me is to pick just one thing and do it. One Thing. And when that’s done, its time for another One Thing.”
Forget that your resume paints a fabulous picture of your freakish multi-tasking talents. A study at the University of Utah by David Sanbonmatsu and David Strayer has recently shown that the more people multi-task, the less successful they are at it, and that people perform best when they do not in fact multi-task. The reason being that they actually concentrate on the job at hand. The One Thing.
Our regular to-do lists, that hang ominously over us infiltrating every waking moment with rising panic, result in one of two outcomes. On the one hand they lead to severe anxiety and exhaustion as we hop from one thing to another finally falling into bed at the end of the day depleted. On the other hand the result is complete paralysis. Nothing gets done because there is just too much to do and it is way too overwhelming to even know where to begin.
All this is overcome with choosing just One Thing. Theodore Roosevelt, arguably one of the most progressive and productive Presidents of all time said this: In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is choose the right thing. The next best thing is choose the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
My acquaintance chose to bury her frustration with her boss and, unasked, write up a report on the status of her accounts before she left her job. It turned out to be the right thing. As she was packing up her computer and taking a last sip of coffee her phone rang. Her boss was grateful for the extra work she had done to bring her up to speed. It would be fine if she resigned immediately without working out the two week notice period and she wished her good luck.
One of my favorite quotes is by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Written in the eighteenth century, these words could not have more relevance in the overwhelming stress of the modern day: Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace and power in it.
Don’t let it be just one more thing. Instead make it: just One Thing.