In Praise Of Single-Tasking

William Iven
William Iven

Do you have trouble filtering information from your day-to-day routine? Do you schedule your days down to the hour to maximize your time? Or, if you’re like me, do you try to do too many things at once? If the answer is yes to any of the above, then your brain is probably running on overdrive.

You may struggle to pay attention, to recall information or to effectively switch from one job to another or you constantly feel the pressure not to miss out on opportunities. The reality is that you are probably doing more than everyone in your social group and your colleagues put together.

You swim through the chaos, surfacing for air every once in awhile for a break – but not just a standard vacation, of course. Rather, you spend your holiday on an action packed adventure where you probably climb a mountain or learn to scuba dive. Because, of course, your annual leave should be productive. Just as every hour of your day should be productive. You stop thinking laterally and the ability to concentrate and organize your thoughts and plans diminishes. In a bid to achieve more, you become less creative. What you are experiencing is the curse of being a multitasker – and it’s not good for you.

Why does multitasking have negative effects?

When you Google multitasking, the first two search responses are “human multitasking” and “computer multitasking.” The term was originally used in an IBM paper to describe the ability of the System/360 to process multiple tasks. Later applied to humans, multitasking has become an advertised skill plaguing resumes and LinkedIn bios globally. Unfortunately, humans generally lack the ability to maintain focus on multiple tasks. Computers can run concurrent tasks for days, they only need to be connected into a power source. Humans need sleep. We need to hit the “shutdown” button every night. But when you are cramming in a 12 hour shift at work, how do you find the time? You need to prioritize yourself; sleep helps your memory to develop and improves your ability to stay focussed. Even computers have a form of digital sleep: power saving mode.

When multitasking, human error comes into play as our brains weren’t built to multitask. The process of switching between tasks quickly, has a detrimental effect. Every time you do this, you are asking you brain to draw from your memory what the task was, when it needs to be completed by and how much progress you have made. Multiply this by 8 tasks and the number of mental processes that you are demanding is 24. Add in some phone calls, meetings and discussions with your colleagues and you are over capacity.

Ultimately our to-do lists are dragging us down. A University of London study found that multitasking lowers your IQ. It triggers the stress hormone cortisol leaving you feeling under pressure. The tasks that you might be completing do not gain an equal share of quality focus. You may deliver on 10 requests in a day at 50% rather than 5 requests at 100%. If you constantly feel like you could have done something better with more time, then look to reduce the amount of things that you are trying to get done. Stanford University research shows that people who multitask must have strong cognitive control over the multiple plates that they are spinning. But ultimately their productivity suffers.

How can you achieve better results?

Try to gain some perspective on how much you are trying to get done. Are you meeting your own deadlines? Or do you keep moving the goalposts? Shift your compulsion from multitasking to single-tasking. Complete one task at a time from start to finish and block out any background noise. You are likely to achieve so much more and the quality of your work will be much higher.

Give your brain a break. Turn off the audio notifications on your devices. Reduce the amount of time spent looking out for the next request to respond to. Plan your days with only one key focus and select a time frame in which you will check your inbox. This will not only reduce your stress levels but it will contribute to how effectively you are completing your other tasks.

We are constantly exposed to so much information via email, TV and social media that our brains have learned to run at maximum capacity. This is not healthy. We have become obsessed with consuming more in a bid to achieve more. However, information overload, exacerbated by multitasking to fit everything in, is killing our productivity. In a society obsessed with doing more, being productive has become a characteristic that we use to describe ourselves. Focus on forming better habits so that you are on top form in that all important client meeting, interview, training session or presentation. There is nothing worse than feeling unprepared.

To start, employ the power of focus for a week and try not to get distracted. Write a post-it note stating “single-tasking” and stick it to your desk to keep it at the front of your mind – when you start a task aim to complete it. TC mark

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