It took more than a week to write a blog post about “doing one thing to prevent overwhelm.” Whether it’s a holidays thing or “life during a pandemic,” it feels easier than ever to lose focus, get distracted, and put things off. In order to prevent overwhelm and avoid getting stuck, try to focus on doing one thing.

It's easy to see the mountain and be overwhelmed by everything you have to do to get up it. Focusing on "the one thing" allows you to get unstuck and move forward. Baby sea turtles confront an entire ocean. But they persevere. So can you.
It’s easy to see the mountain and be overwhelmed by everything you have to do to get up it. Focusing on “the one thing” allows you to get unstuck and move forward. Baby sea turtles confront an entire ocean. But they persevere. So can you.

The Concept of “One Thing”

Whenever clients feel stuck, I introduce the idea of “one thing.” Sure, you will do a large number of things on any given day. But do you do the right things? Can you identify the most important things? If your to-do list always contains more than ten items, where should you invest your time?

If you already know the most important thing you need to do today, great! What do you have to do to complete it? Your one thing may be as big as spending a few hours of quality time with a child who is struggling in school, or as short as taking three soothing breaths before you ask your boss for a raise. What do you most need today? A nap? Completion of a task? Movement? An exercise from Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion?

Focus on Doing One Thing to Prevent Overwhelm
Solitary snow leopard at Woodland Park Zoo.

One of my clients decided to set aside time to make an important phone call she’d put off for weeks. Another keeps a full water bottle handy to diminish dehydration. A third, who snacks frequently during the day, added a few nuts to each snack or meal to increase satiation. Mine for today was to launch a blog post about The One Thing and I’m (happily) minutes away from hitting “publish.”

How to Identify What’s Important

To identify your daily “one thing,” first write (or type) your long list of to-dos, especially if worrying about it is causing you to lose sleep. Keep the list somewhere safe so your brain can relax.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Next, narrow today’s list to the top ten. Place each item into one of four quadrants, known as the Eisenhower Matrix: those tasks that are 1. Important and Urgent, 2. Important and Not urgent; 3. Unimportant and Urgent, and 4. Unimportant and Not urgent. Focus on the important “do” and “plan” categories only.

Focus on Doing One Thing to Prevent Overwhelm
Eisenhower Matrix discussed in detail at https://www.developgoodhabits.com/eisenhower-matrix/

Look at the items in quadrants one and two. Identify THE MOST important and urgent thing in each. Is there something in the planning quadrant that will help you save time in quadrant one? What do you need (time, resources, conversations, manpower) to do your one thing? Of the tasks you come up with, what first step can you take in the next five minutes? the next hour? Do you need someone’s help?

Do Today’s One Thing to Get Unstuck

Take that first step. That’s today’s one thing. The beauty of finding your one thing is this: once you get started, you build positive momentum. You teach yourself that even when your list is 75 items long, you just made progress. How do you climb a mountain? ONE STEP AT A TIME. How do you get unstuck? The same way, one step at a time. When you are stuck, your top priority is to move, to take a step forward. Any step. Get out from underneath that huge “overwhelm” boulder.

One thing: A polished "worry rock" with my touchstone word, "courage". When I lost this rock, I immediately felt like I had to find a replacement. Urgent? No. It's a rock, for Pete's sake. Important? You bet. It captured one of my core beliefs and values. I wanted a visual, tangible symbol for what I try to cultivate and draw on every day. Without it, something was missing.
A polished “worry rock” with my touchstone word, “courage”. When I lost this rock, I immediately felt like I had to find a replacement. Urgent? No. It’s a rock, for Pete’s sake. Important? You bet. It captured one of my core beliefs and values. I wanted a visual, tangible symbol for what I try to cultivate and draw on every day. Without it, something was missing.

This Week’s Top Priority For Me

To identify what my “top priorities” were this past week, I looked back over what I did. The cliche, “Hindsight is 20-20,” definitely applies: it’s easier to see the path you were on than to know which path to take forward. I find it a useful way to discover your values and priorities.

One of my favorite shots illustrating the "power of one" from my Tiger Mountain blog post.
One of my favorite shots illustrating the “power of one” from my Tiger Mountain blog post.

Thursday mornings I volunteer at the Zoo. Last week Friday (a rare sunny December day in Seattle) I prioritized being outside and did some long-overdue yard work. On Saturday I focused on spending time with my daughter; we volunteered at a school fundraiser to get her some community service time. Sunday, family day, we tidied the house and decorated for the holidays. I returned my focus to client sessions and writing group meetings on Monday. Tuesday I spent the day on my fiction. And Wednesday (today) I focused on clients and non-fiction, this blog post.

Take-aways

I see now that every day my “one thing” changes — which is perfectly fine. I no longer focus 100% of my time on work to the exclusion of exercise and self-care. And as my client load increases, I no longer focus solely on leisure (hikes and volunteering) approaching the start of a new year.

As for my goals, even though my blog is a few days later than planned, I’ve found that using the idea of “one thing” has provided me a balanced foundation in wellness, health, family, contribution, and sustainability. If using the “one thing” idea works for you, I’d love for you to leave a comment and share with our “getting unstuck” community.

Maybe your one thing is to explore a new area of town and notice beauty. When that was my goal, I spotted this lovely Zen pond.
Maybe your one thing is to explore a new area of town and notice beauty. When that was my daily goal, I stumbled upon this lovely Zen pond.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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4 Comments

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  1. Great post Courtenay! A trove of good and actionable advice, especially for those of us who do have a history of getting overwhelmed and stuck. I plead guilty to that one…

    My wife and I used a version of the Eisenhower Matrix in the early phases of the pandemic as we had to rethink our lives almost on a daily basis as new/better information surfaced (our running list at that time hovered in the 50 items range). In that particular situation, having the matrix to guide us provided a much needed sense of control and power over the external circumstances.
    I could not agree more about your “once you get started, you build positive momentum” statement. As I keep working on ticking items off the list, my “get-things-done muscles” start feeling toned and strong, just as my leg muscles do when training every day or so. After a while, a ‘craving’ for doing today’s thing develops as well… and related withdrawal when “doing” is delayed. I have developed a habit of working on getting things done early in the day so the rest of that day is “free to play” instead of worrying about when I’ll get to what I need to do. I do have to confess, however, that I sometimes wait for “important” and difficult/time-consuming items to slowly work their way to the “urgent” category before giving them my full attention; then I have flashbacks about cramming for my year-end exams 😊 In such circumstances, I try and break the BIG thing into smaller components when possible.
    OK, I am done with today’s “thing”: read the latest blog post and write comment! Time to play…

    1. Thanks, Gerard! Today’s, for me, was a painful one, something I’d put off for several weeks. Can’t say I’m “happy” that it’s happened, but I am relieved that it’s done and I don’t ever have to go through it again. Next on my list is massive strong, positive self-care so that I don’t fall into the pit of despair and loss. So glad to hear reading and commenting on my blog posts is on your “urgent and important” list (smiling) and that it gives you fodder for future decisions. Onward, upward, forward!

  2. One thing at a time is a great concept. I use it all the time, every day. At work, at home, on a long hike. One step at a time help you not to get overwhelmed. I keep my to-do list very short..3 things on the list, no more. And keep it simple. Over the years, my list is almost just one thing. I love to simplify everything. Complication is not part of my life. My key focus in my life is one thing – focus on yourself first. Self care and compassion to yourself first. Take care of your mind and body. Great article, Courtenay.👍

    1. Thanks, Silvie-Marie! A to-do list of three things? That’s amazing. When mine crept up to twenty this week I knew I had to bring myself back to reality to move forward. Nobody can do twenty things, well! But one? Very doable. Appreciate the comment! Keep on prioritizing and moving forward!