Your One Track Mind

If someone tells you that you have a one track mind, it’s usually an insult. Which is very strange because it’s almost literally true that humans do indeed have one track minds.

Multitasking doesn’t exist. In fact, a good metaphor for what is really happening when we appear to be doing more than one thing at a time, is juggling.

By juggling we are able to keep more objects off of the ground for longer than we could if we simply tried to hold them all in our hands. But, crucially, we are only actually dealing with one object at a time (yes, I know that there are special juggles that involve simultaneously tossing multiple objects in the air – this is a metaphor). What we are doing isn’t multitasking, it’s quick task switching.

And it’s exhausting.

To illustrate, I’ll share some of my experiences from the recent weeks, during which I’ve been implementing the well known Getting Things Done (GTD) productivity system. In GTD there are five steps for productivity.

  1. Capture – whatever has your attention with minimal thought
  2. Clarify – whatever you have captured to understand what it means
  3. Organise – what you have clarified in accordance with that meaning
  4. Reflect – on everything in the system and consider what it requires of you
  5. Engage – with what requires your attention next

This system is simplicity itself. But, as with all Hard Not Complicated things, the challenge isn’t in understanding the concept, it’s in applying that concept in the real world.

In my case, I found that despite capturing things pretty solidly, my Next Actions list was becoming a time suck instead of a focusing tool. It was only yesterday that I realised why. I wasn’t separating steps four and five.

Reflect and Engage are separate steps for a reason. They require very different mental states.

Reflection asks us to think broadly, be open to the unexpected and ask hard questions. It works best in a cool state, removed from time pressure and the need for real world results. If I were to design the perfect scenario for reflecting, it would include someone else being present, my wife for instance, so I could ask her for input, probably take place in the evening when I tend to be more relaxed and prone to deeper thinking, be very unstructured with nothing else in my schedule in the immediate future. I might have a glass of wine on the go or be listening to some music in the background.

My mindset would be typified by an unhurried, unstructured, low-pressure, playful openness and my environment would adhere to that.

When I’m Engaging, I need quiet. I can’t write with noise going on, for instance. I usually don’t want anyone else around or, if they are around, they are there to provide specific assistance to me because in this state I don’t want advice and input, I have made up my mind and I now wish to do. This would usually be during the day, often in the morning. I would want structure, clarity and well defined goals with time limits.

My mindset, in this instance, would be narrowly focused, relatively closed to the unexpected and interested not in opening up but in closing down.

The Next Actions list is what you look at when you’re ready to Engage but because I had spent so little time Reflecting my actions weren’t properly developed. I found that each required me to stop Engaging and start Reflecting again. Back and forth, switching mental states. Keeping me endlessly in a suboptimal mindset.

It was exhausting.

Switching mental states is a mental cost. The more often you do it the higher the cost. This is true when it comes to applying GTD and when it comes to Creative Problem Solving.

Edward de Bono is famous for his Six Thinking Hats concept, sometimes referred to as Parallel Thinking. In this method groups more effectively collaborate by ensuring that they are thinking in the same way. If you’re doing open, possibilities thinking, that’s all you do until you switch to a new “hat”. No back and forth between possibilities and risks, data and opinion, etc.

This idea neatly demonstrates what happens in groups when you switch mental states but what many fail to realise is that the exact same thing takes place inside your head when you think. Sometimes we characterise this as an internal struggle or dealing with the various “voices” in our heads. In many ways we can see that this is just like working on a group and if all members of that group are not wearing the same hat, this will cause us to have to switch tasks repeatedly, each time paying the price.

Whether you’re trying to GTD, working on Creative Problem Solving in a group or solo, or just making the most of the time you have alone or with friends, being aware of the one track mind and both willing and able to stay on the same track is the single most powerful thing you can do to get more from every moment.

So now you know. Which is basically where this sort of thing normally stops. But if you know the Hard Not Complicated method you also know that knowing is nothing without doing. So what can you do?

  1. Be a single tasking absolutist – do one thing at a time, be absolutely aware of what it is and what it isn’t, and have a zero tolerance policy for anything else invading your headspace.
  2. Say no – if you’re clear on what you’re doing, you also have to be clear on what you’re not doing. So being a single tasker requires a lot of saying no. Even to things you might want to do. I find it helps to have a “someday maybe” list of things that I don’t want to say no to but I can’t say yes to.
  3. Manage your mind – when you find that your mind is working like a team you aren’t all wearing the same hat, it’s easy to try and pull rank, to try to control the mind. Let go of the urge. Instead, understand what is causing the different parts of your mind to want what they clearly want, and manage those needs.
  4. Meditate – i’ll keep banging this drum because I know that learning to still the mind, be aware of the present moment, and feel embodied emotions, is a powerful way to prevent distraction and conflict.

Begin by taking pride in doing one thing at a time. Realise that you can only be the best to you, when you’re being one single you at any single time.