Today’s blog post title is a bit tongue-in-cheek: while single-tasking (a fancy term for doing one thing at a time) is quite popular among those devoted to the philosophies of minimalism and mindfulness, it hasn’t quite achieved critical mass in the larger spheres of business and/or art.
To get an idea how single-tasking can impact your focus, let’s hear what Zen Habits author (and focused creative extraordinaire) Leo Babauta has written about the experience:
“Imagine … a single-tasking life. Imagine waking and going for a run, as if running were all you do. Nothing else is on your mind but the run, and you do it to the very best of your abilities. Then you eat, enjoying every flavorful bite of your fresh breakfast of whole, unprocessed foods. You read a novel, as if nothing else in the world existed. You do your work, one task at a time, each task done with full focus and dedication. You spend time with loved ones, as if nothing else existed.
“ …. This is a life lived fully in the moment, with a dedication to doing the best you can in anything you do — whether that’s a work project or making green tea.”
Sounds great, doesn’t it? However, as we saw in our previous post on focus, the temptations of encroaching personal technology, not to mention the design of the modern office, can make it difficult to practice single-tasking in daily life.
Web developer Stephan Miller describes the frustration of not being able to stay on track:
“All it takes is one website loading a bit too long … Even days that I start out good, like today, have a good chance of going south quick if I let them. I am calmly doing one thing now, writing.
“Soon I will try to do a couple of things at once. They will be tasks a monkey can do, but that’s where it starts. By afternoon on most days, single tasking is gone. I am going fast from one thing to the next, my brain going like a spinning top. Every now and then I remember to stop and take a breath, for about a minute. Then off I go.”
How to Single Task
One of the simplest tactics to achieve single-tasking is to create a space where distractions are absent. Some dedicated creatives put their mobile phone in the trunk or desk drawer, or hide all software programs other than the one they are working in from their computer desktop.
But another approach to single-tasking is to reorient one’s attitude. It’s a commonly acknowledged truth that, often, the most urgent tasks aren’t the most important and research shows that multitasking makes the brain less, rather than more, efficient. So focusing on one thing at a time is not some wild-eyed mystical trip, or counter-intuitive. It’s actually smart and based on the best scientific evidence available.
Part of that attitude readjustment means reevaluating how much time something takes to accomplish. It’s possible that you have been basing your time projections on old-style distraction-o-rama workflow. Peter Bregman, CEO of the consulting firm Bregman Partners, suggests that diligent single-tasking can allow projects to be completed in less time with less stress, because focus shoves ordinary distractions to the side.
“Create unrealistically short deadlines. Cut all meetings in half. Give yourself a third of the time you think you need to accomplish something. … How many people run a race while texting? If you really only have 30 minutes to finish a presentation you thought would take an hour, are you really going to answer an interrupting call?”
What Happens When You Single Task
Bregman should know of where he speaks. Recently, he wrote in the Harvard Business Review about a week he spent doing no multitasking. Among the reactions he noticed:
It was delightful. “I noticed this most dramatically when I was with my children. I shut my cell phone off and found myself much more deeply engaged and present with them. I never realized how significantly a short moment of checking my email disengaged me from the people and things right there in front of me.”
I made significant progress on challenging projects. “The kind that — like writing or strategizing — require thought and persistence … I stayed with each project when it got hard, and experienced a number of breakthroughs.”
I lost all patience for things I felt were not a good use of my time. “An hour-long meeting seemed interminably long … Since I wasn’t doing anything else, I got bored much more quickly. I had no tolerance for wasted time.”
We can all learn from Bregman’s experience. And we can also take notice in his conclusion that single-tasking for a week had no downside.
“I lost nothing by not multitasking. No projects were left unfinished. No one became frustrated with me for not answering a call or failing to return an email the second I received it.”
Tools for Single-Tasking
An e-book (in free and premium versions) by Zen Habits blogger Leo Babauta. Includes in-depth information on how to single-task.
A one-item to-do list.
A guest post I did in 2008 on Positivity blog about the usefulness of a “to-don’t” list, which is contractive, narrowing and boundary-defining.