Multitasking vs. Single Tasking
“Multitasking” is the myth of focusing on multiple tasks at the same time (for example, texting while also calming an agitated child and preparing a meal). Multitasking has also been called “task switching”, because when we try to multitask, our brain actually splits its focus between the number of tasks we’re trying to complete, switching to each task in turn as we focus on it (see https://rebrand.ly/multitask). We think multitasking will increase our productivity, but in reality, trying to focus on many things at once actually hijacks our productivity by as much as 40% (see https://rebrand.ly/task-switch).
For those of us for whom the burdens and expectations of juggling work and school and relationships and responsibilities press heavily upon us, the allure of multitasking is being able to simultaneously make progress on several things at once. The combination of keeping all of the pieces organized, and the fear of humiliating ourselves by forgetting a deadline or an assignment or a special occasion, often stimulates our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, releasing a huge burst of adrenaline to help us get the job done. A burst of adrenaline is helpful for quickly getting us to safety, but it’s not a sustainable way to live. People who are fueled by adrenaline eventually burn out, often resulting in a crash of exhaustion when their body has no reserves left. The road to healing can be long and expensive.
Instead of threatening your health, reducing your productivity, and increasing your likelihood of errors by attempting to multitask, try single tasking instead. “Single tasking” is focusing on only one thing at a time (https://rebrand.ly/single-task) (kind of like mindfulness: paying attention to the present moment!). Single tasking looks like setting down our phone to comfort an agitated child, or turning off notifications when we’re in a meeting. It looks like turning off Netflix while doing homework or responding to emails, or eating lunch with our phone turned off.
Single tasking is a proven way to lower your stress, and—counterintuitively—to actually get more done. Because all of your focus goes toward a single task (instead of being divided among several tasks, as when multitasking), you are able to think more clearly and more creatively, and to satisfactorily complete the job much sooner than usual by getting into a state of Flow (the ecstatic feeling of being “in the zone”, when you lose track of time in your joy of creating; the magical intersection of challenge and skill; see https://rebrand.ly/Happy-Flow).
Periods of intense focus are . . . intense! It’s important to intersperse the intensity with moments that recharge us. I like the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of intentional focus, followed by a 5-minute break (see https://pomofocus.io/). During these breaks, don’t check social media; instead, get away from screens! Vacuum a rug, sweep the floor, start a load of laundry, go outside to get the mail, or listen to how many types of birdsong you can hear. Imagine yourself recharging in preparation for your next task.
What would you need to let go of to practice single tasking? What would change if you deliberately focused on single tasking? What scares you about single tasking? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know!