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

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.

Wake up and smell the coffee – and make sure the coffee’s your choice

Wake up and smell the coffee – and make sure the coffee’s your choice

While I’m an inherently non-violent person, I have to admit to a penchant for a good spot of culling. I particularly like culling clothes, but almost any stock of items will do it for me. Twice a year (in a fit of spring fever and in autumn as part of the ‘back to school’ madness that makes me want to buy notebooks and fountain pens), I go through the house like a whirling dervish, culling anything for which I no longer have a use. Clothes that no longer fit, are old, out-dated, or that I never wear because, frankly, I should never have bought it in the first place (if you haven’t worn something for two years running, surely there’s a good reason). Books that I’ll never read again, medication that’s past its use-by date, random boxes that I kept because they “might come in handy”, instruction booklets for electrical items that have since gone to meet their maker. My beloved actually takes care to remain very active during my culling periods for fear that, if he stays still too long, he’ll find himself wrapped in black plastic hurtling head-first down the rubbish shoot.

The crucial questions: Keep? Donate? Chuck?

Now, while I’m clearly an extreme case, there really is something to be said for regularly and ruthlessly re-evaluating one’s possessions to ensure that everything that surrounds us and which, to some extent, defines our lifestyle, lives up to William Morris’ tenet: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Getting rid of things that no longer have a function in our lives can be incredibly cathartic; it can be a way of saying goodbye to a past that we’d rather not re-visit or that we need to shed in order to move forward. A friend of mine reported feelings of elation when she finally chucked the size 8 jeans she’d bought to – yes, I know – “slim into”. It had taken her a long time to accept that she was a natural, healthy and beautiful size 12, and throwing away the useless garment was not a defeat but a victory over the self-critical voice inside her head that told her that she was in some way unacceptable as she was.

With TV shows like ‘The Life Laundry’ and ‘How Clean is Your House?’ turning what is for me just a biannual outburst into mid-week entertainment, the benefits of the physical cull are becoming more and more well known. However, the psychological cull has yet to go prime-time. If getting rid of old clothes leaves me feeling lighter and more streamlined – like a three-day detox – the psychological cull (to be performed less often!) is the equivalent of a full week at a spa drinking smoothies, doing downward-facing dogs, and being wrapped in seaweed.

360° spring cleaning

The psychological cull is remarkably simple. It’s the act of taking a long, hard look at one’s life, maybe even of making a list (yes, someone who enjoys culling will clearly be an inveterate list-maker too), and considering the place that each element has in one’s life. A perfect example would be in friendships. Most of us go through life collecting friends from university, summer placements, jobs, sports clubs, friends of friends… We do our best to keep in contact with everyone as we go along, making time to have drinks, phoning and emailing as often as possible. We rarely stop to think, however, about the quality of each relationship, asking ourselves the vital question: in what way does this nourish me?

Now, I’m not suggesting burning bridges with people you’ve known for years, or blocking names from your facebook page just yet. I’m merely suggesting that it’s a good idea to stop every now and then to check that the people we surround ourselves with are people we are actively choosing, not just passively accepting. If, physically, we are what we eat, I believe that, psychologically, we develop through the relationships we choose to maintain. The same can be said of activities we decide to participate in (the gym you’ve been going to for ages but which no longer offers the kickboxing class that made you join in the first place), the establishments we frequent (that Italian restaurant that has become more of a reflex than a choice, especially since the recent discovery of your wheat intolerance), even the things we say (self-deprecating humour was de rigueur at university, but you’ve been doing it so long now it’s just a habit, and one that subtly gnaws at your self-esteem)

Making a choice

In essence, spring cleaning your life – whether its shoes, the medicine cabinet and your computer files, or the way you spend your time – is simply a ritual that helps ensure that the life you live is a product of choice and not of laziness, habit or apathy. Of course, sometimes an evening in front of the television is exactly what we need – undemanding relaxation to recharge the batteries, but when that sort of activity becomes a matter of reflex and not of active choice, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee (that same old coffee you’ve been drinking for ages despite your new-found preference for green tea). The time we get to use as we wish is too limited to spend it on activities or people that don’t nourish us in some way, and life is too short to go through it living only half-awake. Today, make the choice to make a choice.