If an alien race was to study us, they’d certainly conclude that we are a society of multitaskers. Present day technology has exacerbated our multitasking habits - we’re constantly wired, doing more things at once than we should. Our minds are scattered and our work suffers for it. Not only are we less efficient, but our ability to put our best work forward is diminished.
The power of single task focus
Charles Dickens wrote something in his novel Dombey and Son that should be plastered on the walls of offices around the world:
“He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.”
Can you imagine having the focus and dedication to do one thing at a time, as if nothing else exists? Can you imagine being so into the present task that nothing else matters? Imagine how everything else - your coworkers’ demands, your long to-do list, your inbox, your phone - fades in the background as you dedicate your full attention to one task. Only one task. This might be the closest thing to the state of flow.
Now imagine everything that will happen to you as a result of single task focus. In the sentence following the quote above, Dickens continues by saying: “a pretty certain indication … that he is doing something which sharpens and keeps alive his keenest powers.”
Indeed, focusing on a single task at any given time will help you become better at anything you do, by pure virtue of you giving your full attention to what you are doing. One task at a time, you do your work with full focus and dedication. You can become more effective at work, but you can also draw benefits in your personal life. Your time alone and with family can become more meaningful. You will be less distracted when reading. Even your meals can become more tasty if you mindfully focus on each bite.
The problem with multitasking
On the other hand, multitasking causes us to be scattered, to spread ourselves thin, and to rarely enjoy the things we are doing.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, multitasking is neither the most effective, nor the most efficient way to work.
In fact, multitasking is almost never multitasking. For us to be able to perform two tasks at once, one of the tasks must be automatic (no focus or thought is necessary), and the two tasks must elicit different types of brain processing (for example, reading and listening to classical music engage different parts of the brain; this changes if you are listening to music with lyrics).
The majority of time, these conditions are not met. What we describe as multitasking is usually shifting focus from one task to another. But there is a lag time during which your brain adjusts, and it takes even longer for the brain to adjust in complex tasks. That’s why it can take up to 40% more time to multitask than to singletask.
A 2009 scientific article shows a not-so-surprising result about multitaskers: they are more prone to errors and have decreased productivity levels. In the study, those who rated themselves as chronic multitasksers made more mistakes, could remember fewer items, and took longer to complete tasks than those who rated themselves as infrequent multitaskers.
How to achieve single task focus
Once we have learned to multitask, and even began to view multitasking as a sign of productivity, it can be hard to break the habit. Indeed, it might even seem counter-productive in the beginning. But there are some things you can do to help you break the habit of multitasking and bring back the joy of focused work.
Be firm in setting priorities
You probably have a huge to-do list daily, but if all things on your list are important, then nothing is. Take time each day to make a shorter list of your most important tasks. These should be the tasks that have a high impact on your goals. Focus on just a few things that you really want to accomplish for the day. This can differ based on what each item involves, but you can limit it to 5-7 daily tasks.
If you’re going to focus on only one task, then clear up everything else. Turn off your cellphone when you’re reading. Close all browsers when you’re taking care of email. Focusing on the task at hand takes practice, and clearing up distractions will help you hone that ability. You might even want to take a look at your environment and see if anything is acting as a distraction. It might be that your desk needs some cleaning, or that you often get distracted by coworkers because of where your office is located. Whatever your distractions are, get rid of them.
Set aside focused time
Deciding that you’re going to ditch multitasking and begin focusing your attention to only one task at any given time can be scary. That’s why setting a goal for how much time you’re going to spend focusing on a single task will be helpful - at least in the beginning. A technique such as Pomodoro might help you keep focused for reasonable amounts of time - at least in the beginning. But keep in mind that some tasks will need your focused attention for longer than others. Don’t let a preset amount of time interrupt your focused attention if you feel you can keep at the task longer.
You will be more productive if you give your brain some down time. We often end up multitasking because we’re scrambling to get as much as possible done. Most times this is why we lose focus of what matters. Being overtired and overworked is not conducive to focused work. Try to schedule regular breaks throughout your work day, and don’t be afraid to take vacations that will help you recharge and refocus.
What are your best tips for achieving single task focus? Share them with other readers in the comments below.