It is with pride I have completed 97 things today. I have completed the compulsory bill-paying that is done on every “Pay Day Friday,” an observed bi-weekly holiday in my house. One completion point each for taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, mailing packages, prepping food for the weekend, packing a few boxes, and strategizing about the next steps of my career, among the many things that I accomplished between six in the morning and eleven at night. Every day I try to push my completion number higher and higher. There is so much to do and the only way I do it efficiently is to multi-task, or so I thought. What I failed to notice is that I didn’t check the overflowing garbage in the bathroom, I forgot to box up a recent Poshmark sale to make it to the post office with the others, and I packed up a box of stuff I still need. My multitasking left me unfocused. I missed significant parts of little jobs, causing extra work and a fair amount of aggravation.
Multitasking is the “it girl” of the last several decades. Until now that is. People are embracing single-tasking to boost creativity, reduce stress, and be more efficient with their time.
Multitasking is a bit of a neurological misnomer. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says, “You’re not actually doing four or five things at once because the brain doesn’t work that way.” What’s happening is, “you’re rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.” This actually drains your efficiency because your brain needs to refocus each time you shift back and forth. In fact, some studies say that it decreases productivity by about 40% overall.
What’s to blame for our obsession with multi-tasking? Some say unrealistic expectations, but most fingers point to technology. We as a society suffer from information overload. While this is not a new phenomenon, in the 21st century it is functioning at hyper-speed.
We suffer from the illusion that doing a lot quickly means that we are efficient and intelligent. What we haven’t taken into account is that multitasking exhausts the brain, increases stress and as a result, cortisol in the body. It also creates an unhealthy addiction to the thrill of completing small tasks, which releases dopamine into the body. In short, we are strung-out (mentally and physically) from multi-tasking.
We make more mistakes when we multi-task. A study of 300 Michigan State students found that a 2.8-second disruption from a task caused twice the amount of errors on a test. When they instituted a 4.4-second disruption, errors quadrupled. It’s time to slow down for both our personal and career health.
How to Start Single-tasking
Single-tasking, simply put, is doing one task at a time with minimal distraction. It is having one tab open at a time on your computer. It is having a conversation with your friend over coffee without checking your texts and emails every two minutes. It is being present in the moment. It is minimizing your excesses in every way, if you want to get philosophical. Sounds magical and calming, right? It is, but for our over-stimulated minds single-tasking can be challenging to practice.
At first, people tend to experience a little anxiety, as if they are missing something. That feeling then opens up to the sense that they are not rushed. They have time not only to complete a task but to enjoy it as well. Stress levels decrease, cognitive function improves, and they sleep better.
How can you shift your tasking paradigm to improve your health and be more productive? Start with a few of these daily practices.
1. Create boundaries. Start adhering to no-technology blocks in your schedule. Put away your phone or tablet, and close out distracting websites and applications when focusing on a task.
2. Perform one task at a time. It is a simple as it sounds. Do one thing, without distractions, with focus until it is done. Soon you will be able to increase your completion times because your brain will embrace the single-tasking process.
3. Schedule break times. Give your hardworking brain a scheduled break for 15 minutes a couple of times each day. Take a walk, sit and breathe, meditate, or just love on your kids or pets to give your brain a much-deserved break.
4. Make a new to-do list. Rather than just list everything you need to get done, prioritize things that must get done today. Try to keep it to three or fewer items, so you don’t feel overwhelmed. Make a separate list of stuff you would like to get done today if time allows. This practice will also stop you from over-scheduling yourself, leading to a healthier work-life balance.
Once you are single-tasking, you will experience newfound focus and clarity, somehow displacing all that stress you had laying around. It can be a shock to suddenly downshift into doing one thing at a time, so start slowly. First try one new strategy. Once you have made that strategy into a habit, add another, until you are the highly productive, cool-as-a-cucumber woman you were always meant to be.