Why you’ll get more done by singletasking

You’re so busy trying to do multiple things at once that nothing actually gets done. Maybe multitasking isn’t as great as we once thought? Devora Zack, chief executive of Only Connect Consulting, has the answer…


Why you’ll get more done by singletasking

Why doesn’t multitasking work?

The human brain is capable of doing one thing at a time. So when we perceive ourselves as multitasking, what’s really happening is what neuroscientists call ‘task-switching’. Attempting to multitask by trying to do more than one thing at a time results in us being less productive than when we are focused on one project, person or event at a time.

Why is multitasking so enticing?

When we feel overwhelmed, we look for ways to manage all the competing demands, and we mistakenly believe multitasking is the solution. We suffer as a culture from what I call ‘scattered brain syndrome’; we’ve made ourselves unable to focus on one thing at a time. We’re too busy – singletasking seems like a luxury.

But when we do more than one thing at once, we’re less productive, we become disrespectful to our relationships, we make more mistakes and it takes more time to get things done. We end up having to redo tasks, and we lose professional credibility. If you’re trying to respond to emails while in a meeting and you’re called on for your input, you have no idea what is being talked about. We’re not impressing those around us with our attentiveness and professionalism.  

What is singletasking and why is it an antidote to our busy world?

Singletasking is very old and very new. When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, we had to singletask to survive. But it’s new in that there’s been a lot of global neuroscientific research that proves being completely focused on one thing makes us more productive, improves relationships and is safer; fewer fatal accidents occur from driving or walking if we’re not distracted for example.

Some people think singletaskers are slow, or incapable of doing many things at once. In fact, singletasking requires razor-sharp focus and lots of energy; fully committing yourself to what you’re doing at any one time. It’s making a choice to do something, focusing on it and sticking with it for a given period of time. I call this ‘immersion’ – being deeply committed to what is right in front of you.

Singletasking has so many benefits. One example might be seen in our efforts to be everything to everyone – we think we need to be consistently available. The result is, we’re nowhere for anyone. Instead, saying, ‘I’m with you for the next 45 minutes for lunch. I’m going to be attentive and put away my phone’, will enrich our relationships and our experience.

Another example is with creativity. When our brain is totally immersed, we can access higher creativity and productivity, so we get more done, in less time.

What is the first step we can take towards singletasking?

There are two layers to singletasking: one is how we manage our brain, and the other is how we manage our environment, including people.

An internal technique to practise is to ask, ‘is my mind where my body is? Is my brain aligned to where I am physically?’ ‘If I’m talking to someone or in a meeting, is my brain there, too?’ Externally, it’s virtually impossible to ignore a distraction once it occurs.

So let’s say you’re on a conference call and you have visual and auditory alerts coming up on your screen. You get an instant message from a friend asking if you want to go to lunch. It takes such strength not to read it and respond to it! The technique to use is ‘building fences’. You build fences around and mitigate the potential distractions before they occur. So you turn off your alerts and turn away from your screen before the call so you’re fully present and focused on your task.

Another technique is ‘clustertasking’; used for a certain activity that you do repetitively in a day, for example email or phonecalls, that can often take over from you working on the big-ticket items. The technique is to cluster these into a few blocks of time that you designate for that activity at certain points only in the day.

Email is a big one. So first thing in the morning, you decide to spend 30 minutes on email, another 45 minutes after lunch, and 30 minutes at the end of the day. Block out that time for email only, then don’t check your email at any other time during the day. You’re still replying to emails within a couple of hours and, when you’re getting back to them, you are fully focused, less likely to make mistakes, and it frees up the rest of your day for more important tasks.

How can we use singletasking to be more productive?

Start small. Work on one project alone for 15-20 minutes. Turn off all the distractions, set a timer, and practise training your brain to focus on one task, and you’ll see what an amazing amount you get done in a short period, and how good you feel about it. Increase it to an hour or two, and you’ll find that as your productivity and your relationships improve; you’ll end up with more time at the end of your day.

How do we know what to prioritise when it comes to one thing?

At the beginning of each day, look at what you have to do, and make a list of priorities so you focus on what got done yesterday and what didn’t – the stuff you need to do today. Spend the first half hour doing smaller, easier things; clustertasking your email, say, so you can start giving attention to bigger projects for dedicated periods of time.

Don’t act on interruptions; tell people when you’re available, and set boundaries for yourself so you can focus and be more productive.  

If we have a few goals that we want to achieve next year, is it OK to work on all of them, or should we choose one goal and focus on that?

Singletasking doesn’t mean you only have one goal or accomplish one thing. You can absolutely pursue more than one goal. The only rule is, when you are working on a goal, that is the only thing you are focusing on at that time.

Singletasking (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, £12.99) by Devora Zack is out now. For more information about Devora, see myonlyconnect.com

Photograph: Corbis

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