“The shortest way to do many things is to do only one thing at once.” ~Samuel Smiles
I’m a multitasker who is recovering.
I’m sure you know what multitasking is—it is the performance of more than one task at a time. For me it can look like this: “Watching TV” might include scanning social media on my phone, playing a game on my laptop, and/or doing some knitting or embroidery. Sometimes, I alternate between each of these things.
“Writing a blog post” might include doing a load of laundry, including moving it from washer to dryer, or folding it. You might be doing research on social media or fixing food, sending emails, or texting your children.
Multitasking was not just how I got through the day but also what I took pride in. My multitasking skills allowed me to run multiple tasks while simultaneously making calls and scheduling appointments. I also had to access my calendar from my smartphone. I’d cook dinner while scrolling social media while listening to the evening news, while also writing a grocery list.
“I am so productive,” I’d think. “Just look at all the things I am doing.”
Only I’d forget to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer, so they sat overnight and started to smell funky. Or I’d forget one of the most important parts of an errand or a phone call. Or I’d get distracted by reading something on my phone and the onions I was meant to be browning would burn.
It is difficult to ask your subconscious mind to perform multiple tasks at the same time. The human brain can’t do all that many things simultaneously. It’s good at the stuff controlled by the autonomic nervous system—keep breathing, keep the blood flowing, etc.
Your brain quickly switches between several tasks when you multitask. Multitasking can lead to distractions and even loss of focus.
If you’ve ever tried something like listening to the weather forecast for tomorrow while reading an email, it’s not uncommon to realize you missed tomorrow’s weather because you were reading and not listening, or you have to go back to re-read some or all of the email because you were listening and not reading.
When trying to process two different types of information—say, an in-person conversation while watching a television show—things get messier. Maybe you lose track of the show and what’s going on, or you lose track of the story that the person in the room with you is sharing. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
This is also true for switching work tasks, which I have numerous articles on. It’s not unheard of to be writing an email or memo, but be interrupted by phone calls, people stopping by your desk, and other emails or texts. You must switch to another task after each interruption. Then you can return to your writing.
Each time you switch your focus, whether it’s due to an interruption or multitasking, it takes your brain time to reorient itself and get back on task. Sometimes it takes seconds, sometimes minutes. You will spend more time trying to get back on the right track, no matter how briefly you switch between tasks.
According to an article, multitasking could reduce productivity up to 40%. Forbes. It’s not efficient, either in time or output levels.
But that’s not the real danger. Multitasking is bad for brain functions and mental health. This can increase frustration, irritability, stress, and anxiety.
Research shows that multitasking can be a problem, especially if you scroll through your social media pages while simultaneously looking at another thing or switch between sites. This could lead to anxiety and depression.
The more we “multitask,” or switch between tasks, the more we distract ourselves and interrupt our thought processes. Multitasking can make it difficult to focus and worry about time.
Faced with an ever-present pandemic across the globe and sudden fatigue due to my autoimmune conditions, I tried to multitask in November 2021.
My thought process, having read all sorts of articles on brain health and multitasking, was that maybe it would be better if I didn’t ask quite so much from my brain. Because of fatigue my thinking was sometimes foggy and fuzzy to start with, I thought that maybe focusing on one thing would feel more like self-kindness. Some interesting outcomes resulted from it.
It was true that single-tasking can be more beneficial for myself. Single-tasking was more effective for me because I expected only one task at a given time. It made it easier to stay focused and complete the task. To rest and to do household chores, I used single-tasking.
My experience with single-tasking was that it allowed me to focus more on what I was doing. If I was writing a blog post, I was able to write it more quickly by “just writing” than when I was writing the post, jumping to create graphics for it, coming back to write more, hopping to a different site to do some research, then returning to write some more, etc.
My ability to multitask also allowed me to divide complex tasks into more manageable chunks, which gave each their own allocated time. This meant that I had to first come up with the idea and then go through research. The blog post should be written and then I would create all the graphics. Continue this process.
One hand I had to do all of the tasks required for creating a blog post. But instead of multitasking and hopping from one task to the next, I focused on each one. It was amazing to discover that compartmentalizing the components and then sole-tasking saved me as much time as an hour.
It was also clear to me that I could focus on one task at once and felt happy when I completed my projects. This made me feel accomplished. Even if it meant taking a short break from work, I was able to easily see the areas I should return to.
Instead of having five open, “in progress” items on my to-do list, I had one at a time. It is a great feeling to cross things off your list and move on. When I felt particularly tired, I found it easier to get on with the task when there was an easy way out.
I felt more productive and my stress levels dropped. It was easy to celebrate my daily achievements and see the progress I made. This helped me realize how little I really could achieve.
It felt so much easier, especially once I worked out that I would get as many—or more—tasks done in a day by single-tasking as I did when I multitasked. Focusing on just one task per day helped me reduce the number of interruptions by adding more items. I was able to finish my tasks faster and take more breaks.
Nowadays, I am trying to be a single-tasker whenever possible. Focus on one task or one thing at the time rather than trying to do multiple tasks at once.
It is not always easy to do this. My stress levels drop when I achieve success. It increases my ability to finish tasks and focus.
Just like the research, my ability to do more is actually increasing.
These are some suggestions to assist you in trying this yourself.
1. When you’re trying to use the computer, put your phone on silent.
2. You can use Freedom, a social media blocking app to prevent you from being sucked down a rabbit hole. It allows you to set time limits on your usage, and to prevent you from “just checking one thing,” only to get sucked down a rabbit hole.
3. You should create a daily to-do list with three or fewer priorities. Each one should be tackled in turn. You can either relax your boundaries once they’re done or move on to the next task.
4. To help you focus, set a timer. You can take a break or complete the task by the end of the day when the timer rings.
5. Try to forget about your smartphone and computer while watching TV or movies. Focus on the content you’re watching.
6. You can set up a reward program to motivate single-tasking behaviour.
7. Don’t get upset or throw in the towel if you “catch” yourself multi-tasking. This habit took a lot of time and will be difficult to undo.
As I said at the start of this post, I am a recovering multi-tasker, so I don’t yet have this all down pat. If you need me, I’ll be over here practicing how to focus on just one thing at a time.
Kelly Ramsdell, the CEO and founder of Actually-I-Can, Inc, helps people identify as non-binary or female to rebuild and reclaim their lives. Her e-books and programs are available at http://actually-i-can.com, or you can follow her on Insta, Facebook or Twitter.
Participate in the discussion! You can click here to comment.
Tiny Buddha published the article How Single-Tasking can Reduce Stress and Improve Your Mood