Single-tasking: How to focus on one thing at a time, get more done, and feel less stressed

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!)

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The problem: The modern workplace makes single-tasking almost impossible

single-tasking multitasking

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.

There’s a good chance you’re feeling overwhelmed with your current workload. In fact, when we surveyed 850+ knowledge workers, only 5% said they finish their daily tasks 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:

  1. Having too much work to do
  2. Not having clear priorities
  3. 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

single-tasking busy

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.

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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.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

23 comments

  1. Nice article – thank you. I’m a programmer that easily loses focus and I’m going to strive to have ONE thing open at a time. We have to “context switch” a lot but I really question how profitable it is. Off to work on ONE of my Java files! Then maybe some JavaScript!

  2. I really appreciate the efforts of Rescue Time you guys are doing a great thing and it was really very helpful i have been using rescue time since quarantine and it really helped me alot for keeping track of my work and focus on my goals 🙂 thanks

  3. This is a tone deaf article to be publishing right now. “This is why “makers”—people who spend their days on tasks like writing or coding—need long periods of uninterrupted time.” So all of us who are stuck at home with our kids juggling 100 things should just give up? Is rescuetime just aimed at 20-something tech bros who don’t have families?

    1. Hey Saskia. That definitely wasn’t the intention. I was simply referencing a recent post on the different types of scheduling (i.e. “Makers” and “Managers” – you can read that here: https://blog.rescuetime.com/maker-vs-manager/) We’re well aware of the hardships people are facing right now with working from home and dealing with the pandemic and the last thing I’d want to do is come across as tone-deaf.

  4. Hello… I am addicted to computer and internet… I used Rescue Time for a couple of months, and I find it valuable… somehow… BUT THIS ARTICLE is something, that I believe really makes a difference for me! (even though I have already read about single-tasking as more productive before). THANK YOU 🙂

  5. Great article. I use RescueTime, and Forest to keep me picking up my phone at work, but I may step that up to putting my phone actually out of sight as well.

    Does anyone have suggestions for dealing with non-digital co-worker distractions? My workplace doesn’t do a lot of chats or internal emails, but instead I constantly have people walking in my office to ask me questions or demand my attention for something. As GM “all-purpose troubleshooter” is part of my job, but it’s really frustrating when I’m in the middle of other, higher-priority jobs that never seem to get done as a result. And I have a really hard time putting someone off or saying “no” face-to-face. 🙁

    1. Thanks Kat! The “drive-by interruption” is one of the hardest distractions to deal with and unfortunately, there’s no perfect solution. However, we wrote about a couple of strategies you could try in this post on how to say no.

      Here’s a breakdown:

      1. Set aside dedicated time for “walk-ins” and put it on your calendar. This is essentially an issue around expectations–your team believes they have full-time access to you and your current behaviors confirm this. Instead, set aside ample time for questions and tell people that is when you’re available to talk. You can also set up “appointment slots” in most calendar apps if people want to schedule this time.

      2. Talk to your team about these expectations. 75% of people have never spoken to a colleague or boss about expectations, which leads to a lot of confusion around what should and shouldn’t happen. Just having a simple conversation and explaining your position can make a huge difference.

      3. Finally, rehearse how you’re going to say “no”. According to UC Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.

  6. Great article. I already know multitasking is counterproductive, yet it still happens. I sometimes remember to set Outlook to offline mode, and mute my multiple chat channels. I’m definitely going to put my phones in another room though!

    However, 75% plus of my week is taken with meetings, and I often find myself with have half an hour here and there to focus. I try to block time out, which is sometimes successful. My (very large global) company just seems to have an excessive meeting culture which is hard to change. Any extra tips for that?

    1. Hey Marc. That’s a tough one. It’s one thing to do everything you can to block distractions and stay focused. However, when it’s a company-wide or culture issue it’s a whole other conversation. The first idea that comes to mind might be a little bit obvious: talk it out.

      In the multiple surveys we’ve run with thousands of knowledge workers around the world, one of the consistent themes that comes up is that people don’t talk about expectations at work. Nearly 75% of people say they’ve never spoken to their coworkers or a manager about workload, communication expectations, or meetings. It’s hard to fix a problem if people are either unaware or naive about it. So maybe try that as a starting place? Frame the conversation around wanting more time to do your best work and how disruptive your current meeting schedule is.

      If you want to use your RescueTime data to help you out, I wrote a recent guide on how to have a data-driven conversation with your boss. (It even includes a section on fixing your schedule!)

      Hope that helps.

  7. I wish I could focus and single task. I mean I can single task for short periods of time, but then something pops up or pops into my head and I get distracted and then I’m multi tasking. It’s a cycle I wish i could break, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    1. Hey Chad. That’s a struggle I can definitely identify with. I’m pretty good about blocking out distractions by quitting email/Slack, using FocusTime to stop be from checking Twitter, etc… but it’s those *internal* distractions that are so hard to get a handle on.

      The best piece of advice I’ve gotten for this is to “always have a place for things.” This means that when an idea pops in your head, have a place to write it down and get back to your task. The same goes for an email you have to send or a task you have to complete. Simply having a “place” for those thoughts that pop in your head helps stop them from getting you off-track.

  8. I couldn’t agree more! Deep focused work is the new IQ and is becoming increasingly rare, valuable and meaningful. It is essential for thriving in the fast-changing economy but is very difficult to achieve in the midst of all the distractions around us. If you are constantly doing shallow work like checking mails, social media, etc.. you lose the ability to do single-deep-focused work. We must learn how to prioritize tasks rather than generalizing everything as a “part of work”. Thanks for the excellent write-up, Jory!

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