What's the One Thing That You Need to Do?

I returned from Santiago, Chile yesterday afternoon overwhelmed. I just spent the last week juggling two phones, four time zones, and a multitude of agendas for my day job. I was doing fantastic in that area of my life but felt like I was letting every other part of me fall by the wayside - F&F, school, our home reno, family, friends, and my health. By the time I got to the last connection from DFW to MEM I collapsed in the seat not from physical exhaustion, but from the mental pressure mounting of all the things I had to do, even though I was working nonstop.


Somewhere over Arkansas I shook myself awake with guilt of slipping into a deep sleep. “What are you doing? You wasted an hour that you could’ve been working!” As I reached down to pull out my laptop, I thought, “This is crazy.”

I was reading Brene Brown’s, Dare to Lead, before dozing off and realized I wasn’t living by the principles that I’d just highlighted and underlined a few hours before. I was letting shame dictate how I behaved and not speaking to myself the way I would another person in my life. I would never turn to my husband, wake him up after a long work trip, and say “Omg you’re wasting an hour on the plane sleeping!” No. I would let him sleep because sleep is probably one of the most important things one can do to mentally recharge.

The mounting pressure of our to-do lists can be polarizing to the point of exhaustion. So, how do you move past it and actually get things done, while being kind to yourself?

David Allen, one of the world’s most influential thinkers on personal productivity, addressed just this in his April 2000 piece for Fast Company. (He’s also the person who coined the term, “You can do anything, but not everything.) Here’s an excerpt:

“Allen argues that the real challenge is not managing your time but maintaining your focus: “If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. Remember, you’re the one who creates speed, because you’re the one who allows stuff to enter your life.”

Your sense of “responsibility” is a function of your response ability. I learned that in karate. Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax. The power of a karate punch comes from speed, not muscle. And a tense muscle is a slow muscle.

In other words, you can’t do things faster until you learn how to slow down. How do you slow down? It’s all about the dynamic of detachment. You have to back off and be quiet. Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you’re doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. If your inbox and your outbox are completely full, or if people are screaming at you, then it’s difficult to back off and think about things at a different level.”

In other words, you can’t do things faster until you learn how to slow down.

So, instead of operating like a frantic squirrel, making to-do lists and then darting between which one is more important, and reordering said to-do list, I needed to slow down to speed up. I also needed to combine this idea with Brene’s instruction of being kind to myself.

Of course, at this point in my revelation I was wide awake so getting more sleep wasn’t in the cards. But, finishing the chapter in my book was. I read, blissfully, until landing and didn’t feel guilty about it. When I arrived at the airport, I thought about what was the single most important thing I needed to do today in order to make tomorrow and the week ahead easier. Emily Callahan Chief Marketing and Experience Officer for ALSAC/St. Jude echoed this thought in her interview with me a few weeks ago:

“I vividly remember sitting at my desk at 6 o’clock at night feeling overwhelmed and thinking I could work forever and not get it all done. If you think about it that way, it is depressing. Start with the three biggest things you've got to get done (some days, it might only be one) and focus on that. Once I started doing that, I found I was a lot more productive.  I always tell people, the higher you rise, the shorter your to-do list better be.”

Today, take a few minutes to step back and slow down. Think about what one thing that you need to do today and focus your energy there. And don’t be so hard on yourself about the 10,000 other things you still need to do. Trust me, they aren’t going anywhere, and it’s pretty amazing how thousands of them will drop-off your list when you start focusing your energy on the one or two things that matter most today.