Multitasking is dead: 4 tips to becoming a serial single-tasker

Through all my work helping people to manage stress, get a better sense of balance and be more productive there is one surprisingly simple tip that comes up every time: do one thing at a time. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if we could all do this, then we’d find most of our issues relating to stress and productivity at work could be dramatically reduced, or even eradicated in some cases.

Simple, right? Well actually, it really should be. Our brains can work much more effectively and efficiently when they are focusing on one thing at a time – it’s what they evolved for. In fact, the whole concept of multitasking is a fallacy – our brains cannot consciously focus on more than one thing in any given moment. What happens therefore, instead, when we ask our brain to hold that conversation while typing out that email, is that it switches its attention from one task to the other in quick succession, trying to keep on top of both. This uses up more energy than is needed to complete either task, and leaves the poor brain always lagging slightly behind, trying to catch up on what it missed while it was momentarily focused on the other thing it was being asked to do. There was a study conducted in 2011 that looked at just this, and it found that divided attention and switching tasks makes it harder for the brain to handle incoming data and it hinders processing in both our short and our long-term memories. So you’re less likely to remember important information you encounter while multi-tasking too.

Step one, then, is to let go of our belief that multitasking is an effective way to get lots of things done. It’s not. And there have been several studies that have proven its detrimental impact on not only the time taken to complete the tasks at hand, but also on the quality of the output and the levels of stress experienced in completing it. One study even suggests that your IQ can be lowered as far as to levels of an average eight-year-old when multitasking. Think about that next time you try to type that email while reading that report.

There’s a very simple exercise you can do to demonstrate the impact of multitasking. Take a sheet of paper and time yourself writing the following on it:

  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc….right through to 28

How long did that take? I’m guessing around 30-40 seconds, not long.

Now take another sheet of paper and write down the same things on it, only this time write one letter and then one number, so M, 1, U, 2, L, 3 etc, simulating what your brain does when you multitask.  How long does this take you? How many mistakes did you make? How much harder was this to do than the first task?

I’m hoping by now you believe me that multitasking is ineffective. Step one is complete.

Step two is then to stop multitasking and start focusing on one thing at a time – known by behaviourists as single-tasking. You may find just being convinced of the perils of multitasking is enough to help you do this, but most people will want a bit of help in formulating this new habit so that it feels easy to do, before it then becomes just how you work. I’ve pulled together a few of the best tips I have come across from the field.

  1. Cluster tasks – switching from one task to another is one thing, but switching between two tasks that require completely different areas of the brain is quite another, and is even more challenging for your brain. Make it easier by clustering tasks as much as possible so that your brain gets a longer stretch at exercising specific skillsets. For example, set aside time to tackle a bunch of emails all at once, do the same with phone calls, admin tasks, reading etc. If you know you have tasks that require similar kinds of thinking across your day, deal with them within the same chunk of time – making sure you still take regular breaks of course – and you’re likely to get them done quicker, to a better standard and feel less stressed-out in the process.
  2. Turn off your email pop-ups – It can take 15 minutes to regain your train of thought if interrupted from a task by an email popping up, whether or not you respond to it. And we’ve all experienced the pull of opening and responding in that moment, even if it’s not strictly necessary. Some people will advocate actually closing down their email programme and only opening it to check for new messages at certain times of day. For others, however, this causes anxiety because they need to be responsive to emails that come in. If that’s the case for you, a client of mine recently decided she was going to allocate the last 10 minutes of every hour to checking and responding to emails that had arrived in the last 50 minutes. That way, she was safe to remain focused on her other work for the rest of the hour, knowing she wasn’t dropping the ball on anything important. Having this system in place enabled her to feel ok switching off her distracting and anxiety-inducing pop-ups, and get her job done more effectively too.
  1. Make pre-decisions – thinking about something completely different to what we are physically doing can have the same impact as multitasking. The idea of making pre-decisions is that you’re helping your brain by pre-empting some of the decisions that take up space in your brain while it could be better served being focused on something else. So for example, pre-decide before each day what you are going to wear, when you’ll have a break for lunch, where you’ll go for lunch, what you’ll have for dinner that evening etc. These seem like small things, but if you’ve already decided them before your day begins, you don’t need to distract your brain from tasks in the moment to think about them. What other things do you know you’ll need to make choices about during your day or week, that you could decide on in advance instead?
  2. Practice mindfulness – surprisingly, the more we try to multitask, the worse we are at it and the longer it takes us to switch from one thing to another. Conversely, the more we practice single-tasking and focusing the mind, the better we get at it, and the quicker we are able to switch from one task to another when the appropriate time comes. One of the best ways to train your brain to focus on single tasks is through short mindfulness meditations. I’ve mentioned the Headspace app previously as a great tool to introduce you to this, but you can do this on your own without the need for any technology. Simply by sitting squarely and comfortably in your chair, taking a few deep breaths and starting to notice how each breath feels as the air comes in and out of your nose, mouth and lungs for a couple of minutes, you are training your brain to be mindful. You can simply just count the breaths in and out if that’s easier, bringing your focus back to the breath if it starts to wonder off occasionally. It’s the equivalent to a 5-minute jog followed by a 5-minute walk to train your body to run longer distances, and will not only help you to feel calmer, clearer-headed and refreshed, it will also help you stick to task and be less distracted by multitasking opportunities throughout the day.

Of course, all of these tips will be most effective if you also make sure to take regular breaks throughout the day, as your brain needs time to recharge between tasks in order to remain at optimum performance level. So take that coffee break, take that lunchbreak, get some fresh air, and focus while you’re doing those things on just doing those things. See what difference it makes.

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