When was the last time you gave 100% of your attention to, well, anything? Even now as I’m ‘focusing’ on writing, I have 9 open browser tabs, 2 random note docs, and a desktop filled with files, folders, and documents competing for my attention. All this despite the fact I’m trying to practice ‘single-tasking’—aka doing one thing at a time.
It’s human nature to try and do multiple things at once. And as expectations rise and deadlines get tighter, multitasking seems like our only option.
But here’s the problem: Multitasking is a myth.
What feels like doing multiple tasks at a time is actually our brain frantically switching back and forth. And each of those switches takes a toll with researchers saying you lose 20% of your overall productivity for each task you try to take on at once!
On the other hand, single-tasking is proven to help you get tasks done quicker and at a higher quality than trying to do multiple things at once.
In this short guide, we’re going to cover the most common culprits that cause you to multitask, why single-tasking is a better option for everyone, and how you can start harnessing the incredible power of doing one thing at a time.
(Don’t need to be convinced? Jump to The neuroscientist’s 3-step guide to single-tasking!)
The problem: The modern workplace makes single-tasking almost impossible
If you want to know why you’re so prone to multitasking, a good place to start is with the people, processes, and pressures you deal with every day.
That’s a scary stat. But it makes sense once you dig into the reasons why it happens. Most people said their biggest challenges to finishing their daily tasks were:
- Having too much work to do
- Not having clear priorities
- Spending too much time checking emails and chat
Put those three factors together and you’ve got the essential elements of multitasking.
When you’re facing an overburdened workload, unsure of what to do, and constantly bombarded with communication that wants your attention, you’re going to try and do it all.
Or at least think you’re doing it all.
In a 2010 study, Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re currently doing.
This is like the work equivalent to texting and driving. And once you start, it’s almost impossible to stop.
Multitasking at work also has a tendency to self-multiply.
The more you multitask, the worse you get at finishing your work, which means you have more to do, which makes you more likely to keep multitasking to do it all. And on and on and on…
To break out of this cycle, you need to understand that focusing on one thing at a time is a superpower.
How to break the cycle of multitasking: Understand the true benefits of single-tasking
The allure of multitasking goes beyond just workplace culture and expectations.
Focusing for long periods of time is hard. Our brains are constantly filtering outside stimuli and our own thoughts to keep us on track. Whereas context switching is fun and more likely to give us a hit of dopamine–the brain’s ‘reward chemical’.
As neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California explains in Quartz:
“[Multitasking] feels fun, even if it’s draining our cognitive reserves.”
To help you get started, here are just a few of the ways that single-tasking beats out multitasking in the long-run:
Single-tasking rebuilds your focus
Research has found that, on average, we switch between apps and websites more than 300 times a day and check email or chat every 6 minutes. And as we’ve seen, all those switches come with a cost.
When professor Anthony Wagner, director of the Stanford Memory Laboratory examined a decade of studies on multitaskers, he found:
“There’s not a single published paper that shows a significant positive relationship between working memory capacity and multitasking.”
Practicing single-tasking, on the other hand, helps you lower the number of switches you do each day and start to rebuild your focus and attention.
Single-tasking lowers your stress levels
The simple fact that multitasking takes more energy than single-tasking has compounding effects. Suddenly, because your attention is elsewhere, simple tasks take longer than they should, throwing off your daily schedule, and stressing you out because you fall behind.
When you fully focus on a single task, however, you feel less stress, and can even enjoy your work.
Focusing on one thing at a time means you’ll get more done
Productivity, in its most basic sense, means getting the most out of your time. But multitasking and context switching naturally slows you down.
On the other hand, single-tasking is more likely to get you into a state of Flow–the state of deep focus you get when doing meaningful and difficult work.
Not only does Flow feel great, but it’s up to 500% more productive than when you’re trying to do multiple things at once.
Single-tasking can even make you more creative
Lastly, it might sound boring to just work on one thing for a long period of time, but constraints are actually incredible for boosting creativity.
Sitting through the initial discomfort of single-tasking unlocks your brain’s potential. It forces you to dig deeper and find results, paths, and options you hadn’t thought of.
This is why “makers”—people who spend their days on tasks like writing or coding—need long periods of uninterrupted time. Single-tasking demands a mental license and freedom that otherwise goes untapped.
How to do one thing at a time: A neuroscientist’s 3-step guide to single-tasking
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Sure, single tasking sounds great in practice, but the realities of my life and job necessitate some level of multitasking.
We all get distracted or feel the need to try to do more. But ironically, when we try to do more by multitasking, we end up doing less.
To wean yourself off your addiction to multitasking, here are a few baby steps you can take towards single-tasking from University of California neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley:
Step 1: Get rid of distractions (including your phone)
We’re incredibly influenced by our work environment. Just the act of having multiple browser tabs open can pull at your attention and cause you to multitask.
And it’s not just notifications that push us to multitask. Gazzaley explains how even just having your phone in view is a distraction and leads to multitasking.
In order to start single-tasking, you need to put your phone away in a bag or another room. And while you’re at it, remove yourself from other distractions. Close your email client and IM or put your computer into Do Not Disturb mode.
If you find your willpower slips, you can use a tool like FocusTime to block distracting websites while you single task through your day.
Step 2: Start small, but set a timer
No one expects you to go from distracted and multitasking to hours on end of focused work.
As Gazzaley writes, you can start with as little as 5 minutes of distraction-free and single-tasking focused time a day. (Use a work timer to track this time and keep yourself accountable).
When that starts to feel easy, try something like the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break).
Pretty much everyone can take 25 minutes out of their day to be focused. But to reduce your fears that the workplace is burning to the ground while you’re focused, set specific times to check your emails and IM and be candid with your teammates about your focused time.
The key is in finding a schedule that works for you—one that provides both focused time to single task and the flexibility to react to the distractions that inevitably come up.
Step 3: Take a meaningful break between each single-tasking session
Single-tasking takes effort and energy. And to keep up with its demands, you need to take periodic breaks to replenish your stores.
According to Gazzaley, it’s important to take regular breaks where you get away from all your screens—ideally outside. A 2008 study of children with ADHD found that those who took a walk through a park performed better on subsequent concentration exercises than those who wandered through a city.
Do one thing at a time. And do it well.
When we try to multitask, we end up killing our productivity, becoming more stressed, and ultimately less happy.
But maybe worst of all, multitasking costs more than just your time. It can actually cause you to make poor financial choices.
As Dr. Benartzi of the behavioral decision-making group at UCLA explains:
“The complexity of financial decisions benefits from a reflective thought process, so that we can marshal all our cognitive resources on navigating the necessary trade-offs.”
It’s ironic that we get more done when we slow down. And while single-tasking isn’t the solution to all your workplace problems, it’s a great place to start.