All Resources

You can only do one thing at a time

Andrew White Senior Software Engineer





About a fortnight ago, I was on the cusp of burnout. Things have been a little crazy at, well, at just about everywhere right now. Sitting on work’s morning stand-up, I was feeling wafer-thin, the last of the light in my inundated head about to go out.

I took a deep breath, then another one, and then a whole lot more. Was it a panic attack? Not quite, but it was the unpleasant realisation that I was overwhelmed, there were way too many things on my plate, heck, there were too many plates.

I’ve got one of those good-bad habits — the “yes” habit. I like to please, and one of the best ways I’ve found to do so is to say yes (and then deliver). However, saying yes to too many things is often the best way to delay disappointment.

I say yes to things without considering if I have time to do something, the mental bandwidth, or if I’m the best person to do the work. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with the habit of saying yes; but it’s important to remember: you can only do one thing at a time.

Remember the rule

You can only do one thing at a time.

Multitasking isn’t something people are good at; it’s not the way the code’s written. We can context switch (and I’ll cover this a little further on), and we can perhaps think something over or hold a conversation while doing a menial task, but realistically whatever we’re undertaking it’s one thing at a time.

This thing gets done, then that thing, now this for a bit, then back to that.

The trouble is, forgetting this simple rule of our operating system is easy; and as more requests come for our time, our mind begins to thrash. That precious time which enables us to get things done begins to disappear, and we look for more by either working longer hours or on the weekend. Sound familiar?

Everyone’s work is crucial, except yours, right?

When Steve from accounting comes with their piece of work, it’s the most important; and when Angella from Quality Assurance pings you, their’s is critical. You say yes, and you add the work to your mental soup, or even worse, you drop what you’re doing and context switch to the new ask. That feature you’re working on can wait just a little longer, can’t it?

Perhaps, and then again, perhaps not.

Doing work is all about priorities and taking action to reach an outcome; working together is about the communication of these things.

Often, when working across teams (and particularly remotely), communication focusses on the specific work happening between direct collaborators. Teams A and B talk about the AB work; A and C, the AC work, rarely do the two pairs hear about the other in any great detail. This lack of shared context is a failure to communicate realistic expectations.

Say “Yes, but…”

When I started to feel overwhelmed, I stopped saying “Yes” and started saying “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but I’m working on this now and can start looking at this tomorrow.” or “Yes, however, I believe this thing is a priority and won’t be able to get to your thing until…” or, better still, “Yes, but can you provide me with a timescale and priority? I’ve got these three things on my stack.”

It’s all too easy for someone to be blinkered to your workload or priorities when their focus is on their work, and in fact, it’s natural. Communicating the work you’re doing, and its importance is the only way people can know.

When there’s a communication of workload, everything relaxes a little, and expectations are allowed to become more realistic. In some cases, they might even reply “don’t sweat it, is there someone else I could ask?”

This technique can feel uncomfortable at first, and sometimes you’ll worry about being awkward. Remember though, you work at the same company, and your overarching goals are the same. Communication enables you and your colleagues to pull in the same direction.

Write it down and forget about it

Remember, you can only do one thing at a time. This rule applies to thought too. If you’re still responsible after the “Yes, but”, then write it down. If it’s anything above a 5-minute task – and let’s be honest, it’s rare things aren’t – write it down to get it out of your head.

you can only do one thing at a time

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters

Removing the latent load of tasks to be done from your mind to paper (or some digital to-do) enables better focus. It gets rid of the frustrating itch of “don’t forget you’ve got that to do.”

So long as you’ve got a good habit of checking your to-do list, writing a thing to be done down permits you to forget. It maximises the mental resources available for the immediate priority, i.e. the task you’re already undertaking.

Removing mental distractions will increase the quality of your work and throughput.

Ignore it for a while

Almost nothing is an emergency.

you can only do one thing at a time

Photo by Oleg Laptev

An active real-time comms system makes everything feel like an emergency. Most of the time, everything can wait a little while. Ping, boing, “hummus”- whatever your notification tones are for Slack, email, phone; ignore them or turn them off.

Slack is brilliant for casual conversation and text-based socialising, but terrible for emergencies, and the enemy of independent throughput. It’s easy to lose an hour in Slack, trying to read everything.

You don’t need to be up to date with everything to perform the work assigned to you, and completing work is what you are there to do.

Limit those distractions, close the mediums by which people can get your attention for a while, and schedule 20-minutes later in the day to catch up.

Plan context switching

The time it takes to complete a task can be bucketed roughly in three ways:

  1. 1- Time to get into the work.
  2. 2- Time to do the work.
  3. 3- Time to tie it off, hand it over, or conclude.

The time in bucket one is delicate and is crucial to spend before even looking at bucket two. Bucket two is fantastic, and taking from it is how we get to enjoy the sweet satisfaction of bucket three.

Context switching pokes holes in the buckets and spills it everywhere (I’ll stop stretching the bucket imagery now).

you can only do one thing at a time

Photo by Nils Schirmer 

Unplanned context switches are painful for anyone that’s just invested time to reach their flow state. Once disrupted, it can take almost the same amount of time as before to find flow.

Trying to do multiple things at once means you’re always context switching, like revving an engine without a gear engaged. It sounds cool (actually, it doesn’t), but it’s wasteful and gets you nowhere.

The transition from one activity to another is always easier when it’s intentional. Stop thrashing your mind between tasks, pick one to focus on and plan when you’ll switch from it.

The switch could be once you’ve reached a predefined step or once an amount of time has passed. I prefer timeboxing, and use the Pomodoro technique to aid with this.

Status updates are powerful

Most of the time, people want to know you’ve got something in hand, and they can only assume you do (or worry you don’t) unless you tell them.

If you’ve said yes to something, be proactive in letting the person know how it’s going. Set a target for when you’ll deliver a status update.

I find saying “yes, I’ll get on this soon and let you know progress by X” is beneficial to everyone. It gives you a deadline (a useful tool for planning and a helpful motivator), and it allows everyone to move on with their work.

Be descriptive yet specific. Where I work, we do stand-ups, and in my team, we’ve banned status updates like “I’ll finish it today” or “It’s taking a little longer than expected.” Those are useless statements as they don’t give us any indication of what or why.

A good status update should have four things:

  1. 1- Progress made so far.
  2. 2- Next actions to take.
  3. 3- An estimate* of when you think you’ll finish or provide the next update.
  4. 4- If applicable, list any blockers that need addressing or highlight other priorities.

(*Estimates on completing work are challenging to get right; few people are good at accurately giving them, and they are frequently wrong. I encourage status updates and allowing people to get on with the work.)

Even if there’s no one to give a status update to, give one to yourself. Taking 10-minutes to check-in with your progress is a brilliant way to ground yourself and determine if you’re on the right track.

You are not alone

When I feel overwhelmed, remembering that I can only work on one thing at a time helps. The techniques outlined above helped too. But so did just sharing how I was feeling.

Confiding with my peers how stretched I was, helped relax the tension. My team also rallied around me to offload some of the work.

Passing the monkey on to those with a bit more bandwidth can be difficult sometimes. Especially when you care a lot about your work, It’s easy to feel like you’re shirking responsibility.

If you’re overwhelmed beyond the ability to get work done, however, it’s irresponsible not to hand some over. It’s better to let someone else have a go than to let the work stagnate. No one benefits if you hide it.


No one can ask more of you than to do your best. To do your best, you should remember you can only do one thing at a time. This thing gets done, then that thing, now this for a bit, then back to that. It’s how we all operate; it’s how we all progress.

Don’t let work become overwhelming for too long, say yes but be realistic. Write things down to keep your head on the task at hand. Ignore stuff for a time, if it’s genuinely urgent your phone will ring. Plan in stopping points to allow for context switching, and give specific progress updates to those that need to know.

You can only do one thing at a time, so remember your team, and ask for help when you need it.

Related resources

See all insights