Ah, the myth of multitasking. It sure is an alluring idea, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to tackle several tasks at once and save a bunch of time each day?
Unfortunately, as science has continually shown, our brains just don’t work that way. And in fact, when we attempt to multitask – answer emails, watch television, and hold a conversation simultaneously – we’re both wasting our time and producing lackluster results.
As Jason Fitzpatrick explains, “[h]uman 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.”
What’s more, we increase our chance for distraction big time.
Let me give you an example of my own failed multitasking attempt from last weekend, which (unfortunately) demonstrates this latter point quite well.
On Saturday, I was attempting to grade student papers. (Attempting being the operative word here.) You see, I was also making bullet journal stencils to fill an Etsy order, while keeping my eye on the biggest time-suck of all: the dreaded Facebook feed.
About three papers in, I saw something out of the corner of my eye that caught my attention. What was this especially alluring thing, you ask?
A dog video on Facebook, obviously.
After proceeding to watch said video for about 60 seconds, I remembered that I needed to find someone to walk Bruno this weekend.
I then proceeded to do a “quick search” for dog walkers in my area. This search reminded me that I needed new medication for Bruno as well, which took me on yet another google hunt.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this “quick” 60-second dog video snowballed into a massive search for pretty much everything animal related. I essentially jumped down the rabbit hole, learning about everything from the 7 most important dog training skills, to how to help your overweight cat, to discovering there is something called remote healing for pets. I finally emerged about 20 minutes later.
Meanwhile…I hadn’t graded any more papers.
I rest my case.
As evidenced by my rather ridiculous above example, breaking free of the multitasking mindset is HARD. Despite science proving that bouncing between tasks is actually less efficient, society still thrives on the multitasking myth. We want to believe that we can get more done at once.
Well, I’m here to break the news to you. We can’t.
But guess what? That’s okay! Because as it turns out, there’s a better way to maximize your productivity.
And that secret is to practice single-tasking.
Do you want the secret to maximizing productivity? The answer is simple: start single-tasking. #productivity #worklifebalance #singletasking Click To Tweet
I get it. You’re busy. You have your job, your side hustle, your kids, your partner, your friends, volunteering, the gym, and about 1 million other things to attend to each day. In fact, I can almost hear you now:
You: “That’s great, Paula. You stick with your single-tasking, and I’m going to head back to reality over here.”
I promise, I hear you. In fact, I still struggle with this idea on occasion (as evidenced by my rabbit hole search above). But here’s the deal, on the days that I practice single tasking consistently, they are always – without fail – my most productive days.
How is this possible, you ask?
The answer – like the approach itself – is simple. When I work on a task, I’m putting 100% energy and focus into that project. I don’t have to refocus my thoughts every single time that I shift from one thing to the next. I can get “in the zone” and stay there, plowing through my to-do list with much greater efficiency.
Now, as I’ve mentioned several times already, this practice is hard. And I think it’s especially challenging for those of us who wear multiple hats. But it comes easier with practice. I promise.
So if you’re looking for ways to maximize your productivity, try out my 3 single tasking tips below, and practice them regularly. If you get distracted, that’s okay. Allow yourself some grace. This is a big shift from what we’ve been conditioned to do. So just get back on track, and try again.
You got this.
3 Ways to Practice Single Tasking
Turn off Distractions
I realize this might sound like an obvious suggestion, but I really can’t stress the importance of it enough. Turn off distractions.
Many of us believe that we have the willpower to simply resist email pings and text message notifications. But in all honesty, those alluring promises of distraction wear us down eventually. And even if you manage to resist the temptation, the sheer sound is a means of distraction, and it pulls you out of your focus.
So really, put your phone on do not disturb. Close any excess tabs on your browser. Or alternatively, use a different browser for work vs. entertainment.
Better yet, if you can work away from your computer, do it! In my office I have a “creativity nook,” which is entirely removed from technology. And I mean entirely. I don’t even use my phone as a stop watch to time my work; I have an hourglass that tells me when an hour is up and it’s time for a break.
When I work at my tech-free desk, I can either look out my window, stare at my vision board, or get to work. Seeing as my window looks primarily at my roof, and I can only stare at my vision board for so long, getting to work sounds pretty alluring. I’m telling you, when I sit in the creativity corner of my office, I’m at my most productive.
Prioritize Your To Do List
Before you start work for the day, take some time to make a list of what you need to accomplish. And as a gentle reminder, please keep this list realistic.
You shouldn’t have more than 2 big items to accomplish each day, and if you have a few smaller tasks to include, that’s great too.
You: “Two things?! Are you crazy? I have SO MUCH to accomplish today!”
Me: “Yes. Two things.”
You: Blank stare of disbelief.
Me: “When you dedicate your full attention to these two primary tasks, you will likely accomplish them. Alternatively, when you try to spread yourself thin and attend to 16 different items on your list, you will likely waste time barely starting 16 projects without a sense of completion or accomplishment at the end of the day.”
I like to make a “todo list” for the week on Sunday night. Then, each day, I choose 1-2 big projects from that list and occasionally 2-4 smaller tasks as well (depending on their size.) I tackle the big projects first thing in the morning to ensure that have the time, energy, and mental strength to practice single-tasking. Then, once I’ve accomplished the big stuff, I move on to the smaller projects.
It sounds so simple – and it is – but the payoff is huge.
Budget Your Time
Sometimes we have big projects (writing a book, building a website, writing a major sales pitch etc.) that we cannot complete in one sitting. In situations like this, it’s important to budget your time wisely.
I do this with time blocking, which is essentially a simple way to divide your to-do list into sections of time throughout the day.
For example, my two big items for today are working on my book edits and grading seven seminar papers. I know there is no way I will complete these tasks in one sitting. So I simply budget my time with time blocking, and I allow two hours to work on my book edits and two hours to grade the seminar papers. This brings me to lunch and a much-needed break.
After lunch, I then tend to my smaller tasks of answering emails, grading final tests, and entering grades online. When I block this out, my day looks like this:
8:00-10:00 Book Editing (10 minutes break between 8:55-9:05)
10:10-12:10 Grade seminar papers (10-minute break between 11:05-11:15)
12:45-1:30 Answer emails
1:40-3:00 Grade tests
3:00-4:00 Enter final grades
By budgeting your time and breaking up your to-do list throughout the day, you reassure yourself that you will tend to each task. This helps relieve the pressure to multitask. What’s more, you’ve set yourself up for success to practice single tasking, which will help you plow through that todo list much more efficiency.
So are you ready to practice single tasking? Great! Then turn off those distractions, prioritize your to-do list, and start budgeting your time.
Remember, this will take practice, so don’t get frustrated. If you get distracted, just reel yourself back in and return to your work. It happens to all of us, and it will get easier with time. I promise!
Do you practice single tasking? What are your favorite strategies to focus on one single task? What do you struggle with when you practice single tasking? Let me know below!