Last week, I bumped into an old acquaintance. We got talking and realised we hadn’t seen each other for a decade. This is one of those things which seemed unimaginable when I was young, but has begun happening to me with alarming frequency as I hurtle towards my forties. A bit like dinner parties, “shapewear” and being called “Madam” in shops.
Anyway, we started catching up and it was as if no time had passed at all (another feeling that seems to come with bonafide adulthood). My friend revealed the many profound changes that had taken place in her life in the decade since our last conversation. She had moved countries (continents, actually), got a divorce, found someone else, changed tack in her career, taken some risks, tried, failed and ended up in a better place. She was happier than ever, which she put down to working out, living in a cool town close to nature and also, er, magic mushrooms. “And how are you?” she asked.
How was I? Good. “Good,” I replied. Because I am. I’m good. But then I stopped, because there was nothing I could offer that could match the dramatic hurly-burly personal odyssey she had just described. I was living in the same house, with the same partner, the same priorities, doing a very similar job. The last psychedelic mushrooms I saw were on an episode of The Magic Roundabout. It wasn’t that nothing had changed – a lot had happened to me, too. But none of the fundamentals were different since she’d last seen me. She was depicting a new landscape. I would have been describing a tree that was 10 years older than the last time you saw it. Bigger, stronger, weathered some storms… but same tree.
Among my peers, the expectation was that you should suck up news like a Hoover. While these digital pile-ons could be fun, more often they were stressful
Does this make me boring? The part of me that still loves the makeover movies I grew up on (from Calamity Jane to Legally Blonde via Grease and Thoroughly Modern Millie) thinks so. The drama of the Damascene conversion is appealing; the idea of transformation romantic. Even so, I know that, when it comes down to it, drastic changes aren’t my style. Literally – I’ve been wearing different iterations of the same 10 items of clothing since I was 14 (I prefer to see this as consistency, rather than a lack of imagination).
Not only that, everything I’ve ever done that worked started small, from the website you’re reading right now (which developed out of a conversation over a cup of coffee with Sam Baker) to my family set-up (technically, the product of a fling with a colleague that seems to have lasted 15 years). I’ve always preferred evolution to revolution, so I’m delighted that, this week, The Pool is exploring how small changes can dramatically alter our lives. We’ll be discussing how to start off the year without hating your job, rediscovering the joy of taking a hobby, exploring the joy of getting a regular manicure and also sharing the small tweaks that have made a big difference in our own lives.
I’m quite sure that the best small change I ever made was deciding to start doing things one at a time. These days, productivity experts call this “single-tasking” and it’s an approach that has been proven to reduce stress, increase productivity, improve focus and decision-making and even help keep your brain healthy.
Ten years ago, however, when I first began to attempt to juggle a busy work life and a young family, “multitasking” was the watchword. It was, people said, the modern way to have it all, get everything done and (what a lucky break for a lady with too much to do!) women were supposed to be naturals. So, I dutifully dived headfirst into the new, confusing, Sisyphean list of tasks each day brought.
I did as much as I could, the best I could, for as long as I could, then slept for a minuscule amount of time before being woken up by a tiny child dressed as Lord Voldemort, standing silently at the bottom of my bed. This went on for about five years and was absolutely successful in that everyone remained alive, I remained employed, the washing got done and life went on. It was, however, absolutely exhausting and eventually – towards the end of 2012, after a horrible bout of shingles and the realisation that I was so busy all the time I hadn’t looked out of a window for about a year – I’d had enough. I was stressed, overworked and exhausted. I loved all of the things in my life, but I had to find a new way to fit them together, or I was going to lose it completely.
It was my mam who suggested single-tasking. She didn’t call it that, of course. She just told me that in her hectic thirties (that time of life another friend of mine memorably described as “when everything in your life just feels like it’s on fucking fire”), she learnt to cope by forcing herself to focus on the task at hand, to the exclusion of everything else. So, no working at home, no homing at work. Choose what the moment is, then be in it.
This life-saving advice came at the perfect time, because I needed it to help me with the phase my own life was in, but also because, by then, the age of digital distraction was really kicking in. For the first time, it was normal to have numerous communication streams – social media, text, email – going at once. Multi-screening was now a thing (why watch TV if you’re not also tweeting about it?). Everyone was recording and broadcasting every moment. Among my peers, the expectation was that you should suck up news like a Hoover, before issuing opinions on everything with all the consideration and tact of a leaf blower.
While these digital pile-ons could be fun, more often they were stressful, distracting and obstructive to what I actually needed to do. I decided to make doing one thing at a time my (lone) New Year’s resolution. It’s one of the few I have stuck to and I’ve never regretted it.
I get more work done in less time, and have got better at managing my time and prioritising the things I need to do. My focus improved and kept improving (like anything else, single-tasking gets easier with practice). Of course, I’m not perfect. When events crowd in on me and I’m stressed, I still catch myself flapping around and trying to do everything at once and accomplishing nothing at all. The good thing is I’m better placed to deal with those moments when they come around. I know I need to stop (collaborate and listen), prioritise, work out a plan and stick to it. I also make sure I block in time to mess about, browse and chat to friends online. I still love doing that stuff – I just want it to be an elective activity, rather than my default setting. Similarly, I make sure I have space to do switch off and do nothing, which I’m absolutely convinced helps me get more done in the long run – that old adage about how you eat an elephant turns out to be true after all.
That’s my experience – what about yours? If a small change has made a big difference in your life, let us know what it was, on Twitter and Facebook. We’ll be continuing the conversation with our Small Change Big Difference editorial series this week, and seeing in the new year with an equal amount of optimism and realism. On that note, Happy 2017! I hope this year treats you well and that you enjoy each day, one moment at a time…