Can you remember the last time you gave 100% of your attention to something?
When was the last time you sat down—clear of mind and with intention—and worked on one thing until it was done?
For many of us, it might have been weeks or months. And now that we have these devices vibrating in our pockets, and on our wrists, and soon maybe even on our faces, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ll never have singular focus again. Not when US Weekly just published a new list of “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” and buzzed three devices in your house in a 90 second window to alert you about it.
We’re multi-taskers now. Writing a report while checking email while eating lunch at our desks. And we’re doing none of those things well.
This, as I’m sure you already know, is not sustainable.
We generally feel worse when we multitask. The quality of our work suffers.
But beyond all of that, there’s another more potent truth we must stare down: multitasking, I’m sorry to say, is a myth.
The human brain can do a lot of beautiful things. But apparently, according to science, it has to do those things one at a time.
“But what about walking down the street and chewing gum at the same time?” you might ask.
Would you believe that the brain is switching between those tasks in real time? Every movement of your jaw, switching in rhythm with every step you take. Or, it’s sending one of those activities to the backburner, where it’s handled by muscle memory or unconscious habit, while it focuses on the other.
That’s probably how sometimes you can being snapping your gum so loudly everyone in the library wants to strangle you—and not even realize it. Because you were reading. Or walking.
What feels like doing multiple tasks at the same time is actually our brains frantically switching back and forth. And each time your brain switches takes a toll— researchers claim you stand to lose 20% of your overall productivity for each additional task you try to take on at once.
Have you ever tried to do five things at once? You very well may have been a whopping 0% productive. Congratulations.
On the other hand, mono-tasking has been proven to help you get tasks done more quickly and at a higher quality than trying to do multiple things at once.
So here’s a brief rundown on why I believe single-tasking is a better option for everyone and how you can start harnessing the incredible power of doing one thing at a time.
The modern workplace is not designed for mono-tasking
There nearly infinite reasons you’re prone to multitasking. It could be the workflows and processes you’ve become accustomed to at your job. Maybe it’s the people you work with keeping you on edge and flitting between tasks. But more than anything, you’re probably feeling overwhelmed with your workload. When RescueTime conducted a survey of 850+ knowledge workers, we found that only 5% said they finish their daily tasks every day. That was an eyebrow raiser, to say the least.
Most people have too much work to do, and don’t have clear priorities that would help them break all that work into something manageable. So they default to repetitive and distracting tasks, like refreshing email and Slack. Sound familiar?
When you’re facing an overstuffed workload, the kind of paralysis that can set in is overwhelming and all encompassing. Combine that with emails and chats pinging you all day, and it becomes untenable. Our instinct is to try and play whack-a-mole with things as they come up. But they come up at the same times sometimes, don’t they?
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. It’s almost like texting and driving. Thinking you’re getting away with something—accomplishing something—when in reality you’re just putting yourself in danger to send a typo-filled message to your roommate.
Why do we keep doing it?
One element of multitasking—you could even call it an “allure”—that goes under-discussed is a simple one: it’s fun.
It feels like you’re accomplishing something really impressive. It feels like you’re that computer whiz in the movies darting between three monitors, typing fast and hacking into a security system.
It feels like you’re larger than life.
On the other hand, focusing for long periods of time is hard. It’s boring. It’s no fun! And for some reason, our brain likes to pull us away from things that are boring, in favor of more immediate pleasures. And bright blinking screens that are always changing seem to be one of those things.
This neuroscientist named Adam Gazzaley of the University of California agrees with me:
“[Multitasking] feels fun, even if it’s draining our cognitive reserves.”
But we can’t believe the lie anymore.
To help you get off the multi-tasking train, here are just a few of the ways that single-tasking beats out multitasking in the long-run:
The benefits of dropping the habit
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 at 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.
Single-tasking 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 makes 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.
What to do instead (with help from science)
To help wean ourselves off from our addiction to multitasking, here are a few starter ideas from that same helpful University of California neuroscientist, Adam Gazzaley:
Erase distractions—all of them
Our work environment defines our work. It’s as simple as that. The quality of the work, the quality of our life while we carry it out, everything.
Think about it: just the act of having multiple browser tabs open can pull at your attention and, effectively, ruin your productivity. So having papers and detritus scattered around your desk will do the same thing. Both halves of our worklives, digital and physical, have to be kept in shape.
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 RescueTime’s Focus Sessions to block distracting websites while you single-task through your day.
Do what you can—with measurable results
No one should expect you to instantly go from distracted and multitasking to flawlessly focused—least of all yourself. You should start small, be proud of what you accomplish, and build a positive cycle from there.
As Gazzaley writes, you can start with as little as 5 minutes of distraction-free and single-task-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. (You can join a group of like-minded productivity warriors in a live-action Pomodoro session every day in our RescueTime Guided Focus Sessions.)
Nearly anyone 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.
Do one thing at a time. Do it well.
It can be one of the toughest pills to swallow—it almost sounds like an oxymoron at first. That thing that we reliably do, that we long thought was our only defense against the mountains of work piling up around us, that thing is actually what was killing our chances at productivity all along. And the only answer to the problem of multitasking is to go entirely the opposite way—replace doing five things poorly with doing one thing well.
It can be done. Give it a try and see how easily you take to it. And be sure to notice how quickly your work gets done.