One-Thing-at-a-Time-Fallacy

Your alarm goes off and it’s 7am.  You shut your eyes for “just a few more seconds”, only to wake up and now it’s 7:30am.  Like a sprinter at the sound of a gun, you dash to the kitchen to cook up the fastest breakfast of your life.  You toss the eggs on the pan to cook, fetch a bowl of Cheerios, and slice a piece of bread.  

In just five minutes you cooked three eggs, made a bowl of cereal, and…..oh wait.

You forgot to pop the bread in the toaster before preparing the rest of your meal. 

Gosh darn it. 

Now, either, you skip the toast and end up hangry by 10am, or you bite the bullet and make yourself later than you already are.

Starvation or tardiness. Your options are either bad or bad.

First Things First 

Ground breaking news–when you’re cooking breakfast begin by toasting the bread first.  In the time it would have taken the bread to transform to toast, you could have prepared the rest of your meal.  What culinary expertise! Chef Gordon Ramsay please step aside. 

The act of popping the toast in first is a wonderful analogy for life.  Think of the toast as the task that will take the longest to complete.  Usually when we’re given a list of items to address, we tend to put off what will take the longest and start with the shorter tasks. 

We need to rewire our minds to stop thinking “what can I get done quickly?” and instead start thinking “what will take the longest that I can take one step towards completing now?”

Why are we wired to think in this nonproductive way? There are two answers to this question, both of which play off each other.

One-Thing-at-a-Time Fallacy

We’ve been taught multitasking is a bad idea, and by all means in many contexts that’s great advice. Don’t text and drive. Don’t watch TV while listening to your spouse complain. Don’t stuff your face with food while lecturing your child.

The problem is we take this statement too far, to the point we begin functioning in a linear format. In this linear way of thinking you tackle the first task, see it through until its completion, and only then move on to the next task. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and it shouldn’t to you either.

Imagine you want to grow an oak tree with acorns. You wouldn’t plant the seed and stand around for 20 years until it’s fully grown, acorns and all. In the time between planting the seed and enjoying its acorns, you could watch every Oscar nominated movie, travel to every country on the globe, and become internet famous (whatever that entails).

The key point to remember is multi-tasking works when one of the tasks can be automated. Once the seed is planted, we let mother nature go to work. Considering we live in the age of technology, there are boundless opportunities for automation. Where we fall short is starting with something non-automated, only to realize we should have started first by “planting the seed” for what could have been automated.

Start by toasting the bread. The act of toasting is automated, so all we have to do is pop the bread in. While the oven works its magic, you can handle the other necessary steps to prepare your breakfast.

Fight the Gratification

In his book Atomic Habits, the author James Clear explains we’re more likely to do something when there’s a reward at the end. Upon the completion of a task, the simple act of crossing out, checking off, or deleting the task sparks the feeling of gratification.

If gratification is what you seek, you’re more likely to start with the shorter tasks and put off the longer term tasks. This is the reason why you take out the trash, call your siblings, and do the dishes, when in reality you should have started your expense report.

Completing short tasks is fools gold. Though you receive gratification for getting things done, in the process you’ve put off the expense report, which is your most important task of the day.

The hard part about starting the long term task is you’re not going to receive the gratification of marking it as complete. Starting an expense report, planting a seed, or popping toast in the oven don’t provide the same gratification as pouring a glass of milk. Unlike pouring a glass of milk, there are multiple steps to our longer term tasks, and therefore gratification isn’t as eminent.

Your goal is to be productive, not to create a false sense of accomplishment. The blissfulness of accomplishment will turn into regret for not addressing the more complex tasks.

Ordering Tasks Strategically

When planning your days, ensure you are thoughtful about the order in which each task is addressed. Keep in mind the two keys previously discussed.

The first key is to not fall for the one-thing-at-a-time fallacy. It’s possible to start one task, complete a different task, and then return to the original task. Therefore plant the seed, and while you wait, complete your other tasks.

Secondly don’t fall victim the allure of gratification. If you simply want to check boxes, you risk blinding yourself from the more complex and important tasks.

Next time you’re rushing through your breakfast prep, pop the toast in first. While the bread is toasting, attend to the cereal and eggs. Nothing is sweeter than having prepared the rest of your meal at the exact moment you hear the “ding” sound of the toaster oven. That’s real gratification.


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