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Just One Thing
Or Maybe a Handful
“What will you do in retirement?” That’s a common question soon-to-be retirees get, and one I’ve gotten frequently since retiring from law firm practice. Some common answers I hear from recently retired friends are “travel,” or “spend time with my grandchildren,” or “play golf.” I don’t have grandchildren, although I do have a grandpuppy (shown below). I gave up golf before the pandemic, and all of the travel I’ve done so far this year has been for meetings and conferences and visiting friends and family on an East Coast road trip. The rest of the year promises more of the same (sans the road trip).
One thing I knew when I started this chapter of life was that I wanted to set up a mediation practice. So, against the advice of one of my children, who suggested I take six months off before starting anything new, I immediately began putting together a Limited Liability Company bearing my name, while also continuing my “Higher Callings” podcast, my board roles with my college and law school, and writing this Substack. Although my prompt setting up of the LLC has worked out well, there have been times I’ve thought my son was right about taking time off first.
But the LLC, podcast, and newsletter were only the beginning. In the last few months I joined the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association, affiliated with a mediation firm, agreed to work with other lawyers on two class action cases, took on the planning for an ABA panel presentation (again), became a Lector at my church, and began to assist a pro-democracy nonprofit with one of its projects. And in September I’ll resume teaching two courses at my law school. It’s no wonder my wife keeps asking when my retirement is going to begin.
To keep myself organized through all of this activity, I subscribed to a product called “Analog” by a company called Ugmonk. It’s a set of cards each month that rest on a nifty wooden holder you put on your desk. Each of the “Today” cards gives you room to list up to ten tasks you aim to work on that day. Each monthly package also includes a few “Next” cards for tasks you want to get to in the near future, and “Someday” cards for tasks you hope to address still later.
I needed a place to list all the projects I’m working on so I can keep each one top of mind, and I’m using the Next cards for that purpose. The Next cards, like the Today cards, have spaces to list ten items. The sad thing is that I have no trouble filling up all ten lines with the names of my current projects. All of which makes me repeat my wife’s question: when will my retirement begin?
So, especially now with the fall semester quickly approaching, I’ve come to realize that something (or somethings) has to give. A few months ago I opted to assume emeritus status on my college’s board after about 16 years of board service. And this week I notified the pro-democracy nonprofit that I can’t continue helping them with their project, an easy choice because they were doing just fine before I joined them. As I explained in our last Zoom meeting, “If you want to do everything well, you can’t do everything.” (Those of you connected to me on Facebook may have seen me post my Zen-like saying.) I have no podcast guests currently lined up, so I likely will pause Higher Callings for a few months. And I’m considering pausing this Substack, or at least putting it on a more relaxed schedule for a while.
And all of that, I suppose, is a long prelude to mentioning the New York Times Guest Essay I saw yesterday. It was written by Oliver Burkeman, author of a book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Four thousand weeks, the author explains, represents the average human lifespan, equal to approximately 77 years by my calculation. The title of Burkeman’s essay in the Times -- “Stop Multitasking. No Really – Just Stop it” – caught my eye, and it didn’t let me down. Motivated by the same sense that I’ve had of “teetering on the brink of feeling overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities,” Burkeman suggests that what we need to do is work on just one thing at a time.
In support of his thesis, Burkeman quotes Nietzsche, who complained in 1887 that people eat lunch while reading the latest news. I heard that quote repeated this morning in the audio version of Burkeman’s book as I listened to it over breakfast. The essay also mentions a Hindu mystic who, some 2,000 years ago, “saw doing one thing at a time as a core yogic discipline.”
For some reason, Burkeman failed to quote the wisest sage of all, Curly, the authentic cowboy in the 1991 film “City Slickers,” a role for which Jack Palance won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In one short but memorable scene, Curly explains his philosophy to novice cowboy-for-a-week Mitch (played by Billy Crystal):
Curly: You know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No. What?
Curly: This (raises index finger).
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing.
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you’ve gotta figure out.
(You can see the entire 26-second exchange here: Just One Thing.)
The focus of Burkeman’s essay is multitasking, and I generally agree with his argument that no one really can multitask effectively; our brains just aren’t wired that way. If I’m talking to someone who is also looking at their phone, I can be pretty confident they’re only hearing half of what I’m saying, if that, and will almost certainly ask me to repeat myself, which is terribly annoying. But Burkeman doesn’t stop at multitasking. Instead, he folds it into a larger point:
There will always be too much to do, no matter what you do. But the ironic upside of this seemingly dispiriting fact is that you needn’t beat yourself up for failing to do it all, nor keep pressuring yourself to find ways to get on top of it all by means of increasingly extreme multitasking.
Instead, you can pour your finite time, energy and attention into a handful of things that truly count. You’ll enjoy things more, into the bargain. My gratifying new ability to ‘be here now’ while running or driving or cooking dinner isn’t the result of having developed any great spiritual prowess. Rather, it’s a matter of realizing I could only ever be here now anyway – so I might as well give up the stressful struggle to pretend otherwise.
I don’t agree with everything Burkeman says. If I had to give up reading newspapers or magazines while eating alone I’d know a lot less about what’s going on in the world. And if I had to stop listening to music or podcasts or looking at a screen while exercising I’d probably stop exercising. But I do agree that organizing one’s life and workload to focus on one thing at a time and limiting the number of projects one takes on (to the extent one can) are worth doing. So I’m going to take another look at my Next card and see where else I can cut.
I think this Substack is safe for now, though I may miss some weeks here and there. After all, if you want to do everything well, you can’t do everything, a truth my grandpuppy understands.
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