How to Increase Productivity with Just One Thing

How to Increase Productivity with Just One Thing


If you read my guest post on over-commitment, you won’t be surprised that I’ve been overwhelmed lately. My vacation was restful, but I returned home to a number of tasks I had put off until I got back. Another problem was that while on vacation, I fantasized about all the things I wanted to accomplish this summer. As I considered all my options, I had no idea what to do first.

Options for Prioritizing When You’re Overwhelmed

I thought about using Mark Forster’s the Final Version or Smart Pad to work through my to-do’s, but my anxiety wouldn’t let me. I thought about using Covey’s Quadrants, too, but I still felt the number of tasks to complete would be too large. I Googled “how to prioritize when you’re overwhelmed.” Mostly what I found was the usual advice–make items with a deadline a top priority, delegate when possible, yadda yadda. Nothing clicked until I found a post from Just Ask Kim (note: some cursing here) who said that we don’t have to decide the priority of everything:

Don’t worry about the rest of the list, it’s not even worth your time to number them. All you care about at this moment is knocking out #1.

She goes on to say that when we’ve identified our number one task, we have to focus on it like a laser.

Just One Thing

Kim’s post reminded me of a well-known Bible account, but made me think about it in a whole new way.

40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40-42)

I had always thought the lesson here was that Jesus is what we ought to be focusing on. Rather than trying to get things done, we ought to be spending time in Bible reading and prayer. This interpretation is very hard on poor Martha who is understandably concerned with eating! The traditional interpretation cannot be the whole meaning of Jesus’ words, however. Scripture makes it clear that we are not to give up working and just wait on Jesus’ return. Of course, our number one priority is always to serve the Lord, but isn’t that what Martha was doing? So what was the problem?

Jesus tells Martha that she is worried and upset about many things. Boy, can I relate to that! How about you? I’ve been worried and upset about the many things that I need to get done, or even that I’d just like to get done,  and it isn’t a pleasant feeling. Like Martha, I can get mighty crabby. So what’s the answer to Martha’s and my dilemma? Just pray more? You can never pray too much, but you’ve got to get to work, too! What struck me as similar between the Just Ask Kim’s comment and Jesus’ response to Martha is just one thing being needed. My aha moment was this:

When we focus on more than one thing at a time, our productivity, peace, and patience will be diminished.

My Experience With Just One Thing

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my decision to quit using a to-do list for all but the time-sensitive tasks or things that I would otherwise forget. I remember that time as one of the most productive and peaceful of my life. I started using a typical to-do list again because I was starting a new job (that I no longer have) and figured that I had so much to do that I had to use a to-do list. Looking back, I can see that I didn’t do myself any favors. When I wasn’t using a comprehensive to-do list, I focused on just one thing at a time. I didn’t worry about what I would do after I finished a load of laundry or get upset when my husband made a request that wasn’t on an arbitrary list. I just went about my day doing the one thing that was needed at the time.

I have been re-experiencing the benefits of focusing on just one thing and I can’t rave enough. My productivity, self-discipline, sense of well-being, and family relationships have improved dramatically. Before you decide to give it a try, you might want to consider the following:

  • Focusing on Just One Thing doesn’t mean you ignore your calendar or time-sensitive to-do’s. Checking your calendar will be one of the “one things” you do.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing doesn’t mean you chuck your routines or your schedule. In fact, I’ve been better able to stick to my routines as I’m not thinking about all the other stuff I have to do.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing doesn’t mean you have to throw away your project lists if you need them.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing doesn’t mean you can’t delegate. You may recognize one thing that needs to be done and can decide to assign it to your child as a chore or ask for personal or professional help in completing it.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing doesn’t mean you can’t plan. Again, planning may be the one thing you are choosing to focus on.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing doesn’t mean you don’t work on goals or projects with a future deadline. Again, it’s one of the “one things” you will focus on.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing means that you do not worry about what you’re going to do after the one thing you’re doing. The only exception to that is if you’re planning. Otherwise, enjoy your meal, your conversation, your family, and even your work without the angst about what comes next.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing means you do not have to prioritize your to-do’s. You don’t even have to write them all down! Just ask yourself what the “one thing” is and do it–even if that’s checking your list of tasks you would otherwise forget. It’s not necessarily doing the most important thing, because who knows what that is?  Barak Rosenbloom blogged about this low-stress approach to using a calendar on Time Natives.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing means that you’re open to something else taking over as the one thing: your child gets hurt, someone comes to the door, or your husband needs you.
  • Focusing on Just One Thing means you are sensitive to the Lord’s leading. As I’ve been focusing on just one thing, I have heard the Lord saying, “This is the way. Walk in it.” What a blessing to know that I’m not too distracted to hear Him for a change!

Are You a Mary or a Martha?

I used to think Mary was the “spiritual” one and Martha was a control freak. Not anymore! Mary has learned the blessing of focusing on just one thing and Martha needed to learn it. Which one are you? Do you know any Mary’s?

If you give Just One Thing a try, I’d love to hear your experience!

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