The benefits of single-tasking.

It’s been nearly 12 months since I started psychotherapy and I wanted to reflect back on some of the things I’ve learned in the hopes they’ll be able to help you too.

I used to be an ‘always on’ person. My work was deadline driven and thought intensive, my environments were chaotic (read messy). My therapist even said I talked without breathing, determined to get everything I had to say out in the quickest way possible. My brain was constantly trying to find the next problem I’d have to stress over. The inside of my head felt like if you were trying to read a book, listen to three different radio stations, had the TV on and were playing a video game, all at the same time.

For some reason, I felt like this was how I had to be in order to be successful. I prided myself on my ability to multitask, to balance things that others couldn’t. I always pushed myself right up to the limit, purely to see if I could. I wanted it all — the great career, the best education, strong relationships, a beautiful home — and I wanted them now. Then along came 2020.

When the first lockdown came along back in March, we were allowed to only go outside once a day for exercise, encouraged to shop online and work from home. With all the control we used to have taken away, I, like many others, turned my focus to the things that felt stable. For me, this was work.

With the new shift to working from home, I often found myself at my desk before I had done anything else in the morning — ‘just checking emails’ or ‘just planning what needed done’. I’d eat my lunch at my desk, finish my hours for the day, but continue working because my partner has a fixed schedule he needed to work, and ‘I might as well stay here until he was done’. I was also on call, often having to work in the middle of the night because something had gone wrong. Without me really realising it, work had quite literally taken over my life.

I feel like it’s important to note that I had already had about 8 weeks of therapy before the lockdown was announced, and the solid personal and mental defences that I had built up over the years were starting to slowly crack and break down. I was able to be vulnerable in tiny amounts, but my therapist was good enough to encourage this and draw things out of me that I would otherwise have internalised. When I told my therapist I had taken a week off because I was having nosebleeds and had thrown up at my desk while working, she suggested I needed more than a week, and to consider taking a longer period off.

I was a bit taken aback by this. The thought of taking that time off stirred up some uncomfortable emotions — I felt guilty for the people I was leaving all my work to, shame at having to take time off during a time when people were losing their jobs and would have given anything for the security my job provided, embarrassment at not being able to multitask like I had previously. Most of all, I felt like a failure. But I trusted my therapist and I was clearly showing the physical signs of stress. I agreed to speak to my GP and took the rest of the month off.

The progress I made in that month of therapy was phenomenal. Without the distraction of work, we were able to work on some really tough things, like the unprocessed grief I had been holding, my perfectionism, and my lack of self worth. The defensive walls I built had crumbled to dust and I was able to really look at myself and my life. I realised I had been using work as a distraction from my valid fears and anxieties around the virus. As my own self worth grew, that month I took off eventually became over six months. Without a doubt, they have been six of the toughest, yet most valuable months of my whole life.

In a way, 2020 forced us all to slow down. For some, this slowing down was enough for them to figure out what is important to them. For me, I had to take that time off work. Without it, I would have continued to multitask, to use work as a distraction. I’m about to start back at work after what will have been a total of seven months off, and I am a little nervous about how I’ll manage, but I feel so much more confident in my own ability to set boundaries and ask for help when I need it.

By giving myself permission to single-task, I have made such huge changes to my life. I’ve realised that I can still have it all; I can still have a great career, brilliant education, strong, lasting relationships. By focusing on them one at a time, the quality of each of these areas of my life has increased so much and I’m so much happier for it.

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