A Case For Singletasking: The One-Task-At-A-Time Method

You juggle a lot of balls every day, and it's easy to feel like everything gets 20 per cent of your attention, but nothing ever gets 100 per cent. It's time to start giving your work your full focus.

Photo by koka sexton.

It's easy to feel like you're being constantly pulled in multiple directions. Fractured attention, endless to-do lists and an overwhelming sense that everything important was due 20 minutes ago are practically the uniform of the modern workplace. If that frazzled view of work sounds a bit too much like your work day, it may be time to reconsider how you're working, take back your focus from the multitude of distractions around you, and start focusing on the work that matters and will make a difference in your career and life.

The Allure and Trap of Multitasking

Multitasking is attractive, make no mistake about it. Most of us didn't fall into the habit of multitasking strictly out of fear for our jobs. Most of us fell into the habit because the allure of getting more done is too strong to pass up. We're all working with the same number of minutes in the day, and — in theory — the people who can somehow squeeze in even 5 per cent more work into the time they've got come out ahead, right? Photo by BotheredByBees.

Except the power of multitasking is a myth. Human beings are, essentially, single-core processors. We can't effectively check our email, listen to someone asking us for feedback on a project and take notes simultaneously. We can do it, sure, but everything suffers. Juggling tasks divides your attention, increases the time spent refocusing on important tasks (making you less productive), often gives people the impression that you aren't completely focused on them (because you're not), and robs you of a powerful focus you could be directing towards a single important task.

The Benefits of Singletasking

It's possible you've been multitasking so long you've forgotten what it's like to fully dedicate yourself to one task. Let's jog your memory to help you back on the road to singletasking. Photo by Nina Matthews Photography.

Singletasking forces you to sustain your focus and work through complex problems. If you're always jumping from email to IM to the web and then back through your list of workplace distractions, then you're not taking the time to focus on problems that require persistent and complex thought.

Your stress levels will fall. Multitasking is stressful. The more you attempt to do things in parallel, the more energy you have to invest just in tracking your tasks and keep things straight. When you focus fully on one task, you can redirect much of the mental and physical energy you've been using up just keeping all the balls in the air towards more productive work.

You'll get better at managing your time. When we talked about using timers to boost your productivity, we highlighted how timers can train you to be more honest with your time and assessments thereof. Singletasking imparts a similar ability; you'll become better at identifying things that are effective and ineffective uses of your time. When you cut out the distractions and hone in on the work that is important to you, unimportant things that take you away from that work are easier to see.

You'll get more done, one task at at time, than you could have even imagined when you were "multitasking". Feeling a sense of completion is extremely satisfying. Imagine you've been tasked with felling a stand of trees. If you approach it by making three passes of the saw on each tree before moving onto the next. At the end of the day you won't have cut down a single tree down. If you start with one tree and saw through until it's done, you may not have left your mark on every tree that day, but you'll have a pile of timber to show for your effort. When you cut out the crap that doesn't matter and start sawing away at the important tasks, you may be surprised to see how quickly you make progress on them.

Getting Started with Singletasking

At this point you might be thinking to yourself "Yeah, that's great. Back in the real world...", and I completely understand where you're coming from. Multitasking is so ingrained in the habits of most workers and workplace cultures it's just the way things are. Cutting out distractions and focusing on one thing is really hard to do in many modern workplaces, but it's worth the effort. If you need a little push in the right direction, here are a few suggestions. Photo by Brittany Culver.

Use the minimal tools necessary to effectively do your work. You can find inspiration for this idea in a an unusual place — the Amish. Most people assume the Amish shun technology. On closer inspection, however, the Amish don't shun technology; they just operate from the default stance of "No.". They only accept new things when those new things seem to be worth the hassle. Their dividing line may differ completely from ours, but we generally operate on the default of "Yes!", accepting new tools and tech at a rapid clip. When you consider what you really need to get your work done, however, you'll probably notice at least a few "tools" you can do without. Do you need a web browser open on your second monitor while you're writing that memo? Do you need the second monitor at all? Can you ignore your email for a few hours? Shut down your IM software?

It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we need to have our email open all the time, to have our IM client on in case somebody needs to reach us, to have web browser ready to go for those urgent things we need to do. Try operating from the standpoint of "I don't need this unless it proves to be impossible to work without it." You'll quickly find that you need way fewer tools than you think you do. (If you feel like physical clutter is part of your problem, check out our end-all guide to getting out from under your office crap.)

Do less. That doesn't mean you should work less, not as hard or sit there staring off in space just to cut down on your stress. Doing less is more about acknowledging that you can't do everything, that every to-do list entry isn't set in stone and that it's OK to say no. When people end up frantically multitasking, it's often after they've realised there's no conceivable way they will ever get everything on their to-do list done. If that hits a little close to home for you, it's probably time to clean out your to-do list and brush up on maintaining a project list that doesn't crush your soul.

Be candid about your singletasking focus. People will initially be surprised at your commitment to multitasking, culturally we're firmly entrenched in the idea of multitasking. If your boss asks you why you didn't respond immediately to an email she sent you, tell her the truth: You closed your email client to give 100 per cent of your attention to a project she had delegated to you earlier in the day. We've all gotten so used to not having the full focus of our bosses, coworkers, even friends, that it's easy to forget how powerful it is to have and to give 100 per cent focus.

In short: Prune your to-do list, focus on one task at a time and knock them out one by one.


Comments

    One way to get into the habit of single-tasking is to practice it doing something you like that is a non-work related and preferably non-IT related hobby - especially if its something that requires physical activity with your hands.

    e.g. I am an IT Project Manager and have constant multi-tasking pressure on me. However I am also a passionate woodworker/cabinet maker. When you are working on a piece of wood you cannot multi-task because you have only 1 pair of hands. Everything you do is a series of specific single-tasks, with breaks in between when you have to stop and think what is the best way to do the next single-task.

    If you try and multi-task in woodworking, the fine box or table (or PC case) you are creating may very quickly become kindling.

    The requirement for single-tasking is true of almost any physically creative active ... with the possible exception of cooking. Cooking is way too multi-tasked!

    -T.

    "People will initially be surprised at your commitment to multitasking, culturally we’re firmly entrenched in the idea of multitasking."

    I think you meant 'at your commitment to singletasking'. :)

    Even if it's not "one thing today" and just "one thing before lunch" or similar, you'll still get more done by focusing on one specific task for a given period of time.

    If your workplace allows it, noise-cancelling headphones are a great way to help you get into the zone. Chatter at my workplace happens mainly in IRC, but I'm on the same floor as phone support, so headphones are a must.

    I can definitely get more done when I stay focused on one task at a time. After switching tasks, it takes a long time to get back on track.

    I was struggling to be productive a few days ago. I had four projects on the go with tasks that had to be done that day for each one. I was just exhausted that day because my newborn son Samuel had kept me awake through parts of the previous night. In the afternoon I realised that I had been switching between each of these projects and had achieved very little. I decided to focus on just one task and get it done. I used a timer and set myself to focus on just one task for an intense 30min. It felt great to get this done & I was more motivated as I moved onto the next task.

    The video by Clifford Nass (see http://www.lifehacker.com.au/2010/09/assign-your-email-a-15-minute-minimum-to-avoid-nervous-checking/) is relevant to this article. Very interesting to hear that research shows that practicing multi-tasking actually makes it more difficult to multi-task when you really need to.

    Thanks for your comment Laura - I'll have to try out the noise-cancelling headphones.

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