Sometimes I feel like my life is one long to-do list I’ll never complete. I worry that between my family, my work, my home, my church, and the endless commitments I have in all these areas that I’m defined by my inability to get all of it done. To fight this feeling, I often react by trying to do 12 things at once. This is probably most pronounced when I’m at home with my two sons, and I find myself becoming what I call “In a Minute Mom.”
“I’ll be there in just a minute,” I chirp as I throw in a load of laundry while trying to sign up for soccer lessons on my phone or empty the dishwasher while scanning a magazine article. I really do mean it, but when I’m trying to do several things at once, one task easily blends into another. Before I know it, I’ve started wiping down the counter or checking out Twitter or reading a friend’s blog post.
The truth is it’s never just a minute.
And the worst feeling in the world is when one of my children calls me on it: “Mom, you said you’d tie my shoe/read to me/play LEGOs in just a minute, and you still haven’t done it!”
And he’s right. There I am again, trying to do so many things at once that I don’t do anything well. As a result, I can be all too easily swept up in waves of anxiety and worry that make me even more determined to get everything done (all at the same time if possible).
This isn’t the way God designed us to live.
A Better Way
In fact, the way I often live is the opposite of Jesus’ words in Matthew:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (6:25, 33, NRSV).
I’m so busy worrying about all the wrong things that I’m not focusing on the right ones. And when I’m constantly trying to do so many things at once, I’m not focused on the kingdom of God.
That’s why I’ve been seeking, as much as possible, to do only one thing at a time.
I’ve always heard that women were much better at multitasking than men—that it stemmed back to earlier stages of human history in which women were making the clothes, collecting the nuts and berries, and watching the children, while all the men had to worry about was hunting.
But in Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte cites recent studies that indicate women and men are equally bad at multitasking. What’s also clear is that women multitask a lot more than men. As a result, women tend to live in what researchers call “contaminated time,” where we’re never just in the moment. Instead, we’re always either reviewing something that happened in the past or planning for something we need to do in the future. (The first image that came to mind when I read this was me stealthily tapping out a grocery list during the sermon at church.)
Pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi believes flow is the key to lasting happiness. Flow is when we’re able to do just one thing for long enough that we fall into a happy rhythm and lose track of time. There is truth in this idea. When I’m focused on doing one thing only, even when that thing is not something overtly spiritual, it seems to open up space for me to express thanks and gratitude for God, and for God to speak to me.
Yet, like most women, I don’t have a lot of flow in my life. It’s partly just the nature of life with small children, but it’s undeniable that some of it is self-inflicted. Recently I realized I have trouble hanging out at the playground without my smartphone in hand. I also realized it’s hard to cook without listening to the radio or reading a book. I crowd my life with distractions. The result? Very little time and space for God.
Making some small changes in my life has made it much easier for me to focus on doing one thing at a time.
1. Segment Your Time
The three areas I have the most trouble separating are time with my children, time working from home, and time on household tasks. In order to prevent those areas from bleeding together, I schedule time for each.
For example, during the hours when my children are at school, I only work. Those times aren’t for cleaning the house, no matter what sad shape it’s in. And because my kids are too busy reading or greeting the toys or stuffed animals when they get home from school, that has become a good time for me to throw in laundry, deal with the mail and paper that come home from school, prep for dinner, and tidy up.
Then, I can feel free to spend focused (and uncontaminated) time with each of my children when they’re ready, without having to worry about the dishwasher or unanswered emails or the laundry. Those times are often the best of my day.
2. Submit Your To-Do List to God
My to-do list never seems to get any shorter. Just looking at it tends to make me feel panicky. So, once a day I try to look at my list through God’s eyes and reorder it in terms of priority. I find this radically changes the order in which I do things. Tasks that weren’t even written on my list come to the forefront, such as calling my mom or checking in with a friend who is having a hard time. Other items fall right off the list.
3. Step Away from the Smartphone
My smartphone is my timepiece, so I almost always carry it with me. How convenient to have access to all that information, yet how annoyed I am when I find myself checking my email every five seconds. Not only is it spiritually unsatisfying to always be distracted by my phone, but it’s actually much more efficient to read my email all at once rather than in bits and pieces throughout the day.
I always keep my phone near me when one or both of my boys is at preschool or with a babysitter, but I try to lose it when we’re together. Everyone knows I’m the one who sometimes doesn’t respond to texts for hours. They get used to it, I promise.
4. Reduce Your Media Intake
My smartphone isn’t the only source of media temptation for me. I’m often reading three books and five magazines—and I dip in and out of them throughout the day. I also like to have the radio on. But all this literal and figurative noise tends to make me more anxious than peaceful. How can I hear God’s voice when I’m listening to music or reading almost every free second of the day?
I’ve been doing my best to set aside the reading and turn off the radio unless that’s all I’m doing. As a result, I have a lot more space for praying and listening to God.
I’m enjoying the things I do a lot more now, and my anxiety is down. And when I hear myself say, “In a minute!” to my children, I recognize it as a sign that I might be trying to do too much. One thing at a time—it’s truly a gift.