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Want to improve focus and productivity? Do one thing at a time

Juggling too many activities wastes time and energy, so shelve at least some for those life goals (for now)

The urge to do too many things at once is nothing new: as long ago as 1887, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was bemoaning the way “one thinks with a watch in one’s hand, even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market”. But for a variety of reasons – overwork, digital distraction, plus the boundary-blurring consequences of the pandemic – it’s probably never been worse. At new year, it often takes an additional form: the desire to implement a total life makeover, sorting out your work backlog and your relationship issues, your health and your home repairs all at once. The urge should be resisted, though. The single most effective ingredient for a happier and more meaningful 2021 is the exact opposite: to improve your capacity for doing only one thing at a time.

One main reason this is harder than it looks is that doing several things at once is usually a way of assuaging anxiety. When you’re drowning in to-dos, it’s calming to feel that you’re addressing lots of them simultaneously. And when you think your life’s a mess – you should be exercising more, sorting out your finances, improving your relationship with your kids, and on and on – it’s similarly reassuring to feel you’re tackling all those critical issues, not just one.

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