You’ve heard of multitasking, right? You might have even mentioned it on your resume or in job interviews (I know I have).
Single-tasking, as you might have guessed, is the complete opposite. It means focusing all your attention on just one task at a time. It might sound incredibly inefficient to work this way. After all, if you could do several things at once, why wouldn’t you?
But research shows single-tasking actually ends up faster than multitasking in the end. Not only that, but we also perform better and create higher quality work when we single-task.
Let’s take a look at why multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Myth of Multitasking
This may sound like an overstatement, but research shows that the human brain simply cannot multitask. We literally can’t do it.
But you’ve done it before, right? You’re probably thinking that can’t possibly apply to you, because you know you can multitask.
Well, there are two reasons why you might think you can:
- We can do tasks like walking, or chewing, that don’t require cognitive effort, while doing something else that does use our brainpower. This is how we can have a conversation during a meal, or while walking.
- When we try to do multiple cognitively demanding tasks at once, our brain is able to switch between the different tasks very quickly. This gives us the illusion of multitasking, when in fact we’re just working on multiple different things less efficiently.
When we’re working on two things at once, and our brains are constantly switching back and forth between them, that extra time it takes to switch adds up. It might be too small for us to notice, but research has shown overall we’re slower at performing tasks when we try to do them at the same time, instead of one after the other.
And we’re not just slower, we’re worse at those tasks as well!
Attempting to multitask wears on the brain, because every time it switches tasks, it’s using up a little bit of brainpower in the switching process. So we’re tiring ourselves out, making both tasks harder, just because we’re trying to save time by doing them both at once.
But many people still try to do it. According to Jacqueline Carter, partner and senior trainer for The Potential Project, there are three main reasons people try to multitask:
- They don’t know it’s impossible (i.e. they haven’t come across this research yet—this was me not too long ago)
- They have too much to do
- They’re not interested or engaged in their original task
These last two reasons are pernicious, because even when you know you can’t really multitask, these situations make it oh-so-tempting. I’ve known about the myth of multitasking for a couple of years now, but I still find myself doing multiple things at once (badly) when I’m strapped for time, or struggling through a boring task.
Though we can try to catch ourselves and use willpower to stop falling back on our old multitasking habits, a more efficient approach is to retrain ourselves. If we focus on making single-tasking our default working method, it’ll be the one we fall back on without thinking about it—and our work will be done better, and faster, as a result.
Single Task to retrain your brain
You’ve probably been in this situation before: You’re listening to a mixtape or playlist of songs you love. You’re singing along, enjoying one of your favorite tracks, when you hit that three-second gap between tracks. At just the right moment, you start singing the next song from the album—only to realize that it’s not playing, because this is a compilation.
But you knew exactly what the next song was, how it started, and when it would start to play. Your brain has learned that album you love so well that it knows not only what to expect, but when to expect it.
Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas, says our brains are great at seeing patterns and using them to predict what’s coming next. “An important function of the brain is not just to predict what is going to happen next, but when it is going to happen,” he says.
But this can actually be dangerous, because we’re training our brains without realizing it.
If you check your email every 20 minutes, your brain learns that pattern. If you scroll through social media apps on your phone every 10 minutes, your brain learns that pattern.
“…whenever you engage in an activity frequently, your brain is trying to predict when you will need to do it again,” Markman says.
Your brain thinks it’s doing you a favor when it disrupts your attention at those intervals in the future, because it knows you probably want to check your email or see what’s happening on Twitter.
Each time you check your email you probably think, “I don’t have to check my email right now. I’ve decided to. I’m still in control.” But it doesn’t take long before you’re not in control. You don’t have to check your email, but you can’t stop your brain from thinking it’s time to disrupt your attention so you can switch it to doing something else now.
The way to get around this, Markman says, is to retrain your brain. You have to fight the timing that your brain has learned, and teach it a new frequency. Markman suggests starting small, and increasing the length of time between distractions bit by bit, until your brain has learned to let you focus for longer periods before your attention wanes.
To start, simply grab a timer, and take notice of how long you work before your brain tells you it might be time for a distraction. When you start thinking about whether to pick up your phone or check your inbox, take a look at the timer and see how long you lasted. Do this a few times to get an idea of your average focus time.
Once you know what kind of schedule your brain tends to follow, set a work timer for just a tiny bit longer than that. When you get distracted, stop yourself from jumping to your inbox, or even another task—if the timer hasn’t finished yet, push yourself to stay focused until it does.
You’ll find it’s tough in those last few minutes to stay on task, but eventually your brain will learn the new schedule. When it’s easy to focus for that period, increase your timer a little and work on training your brain to follow that schedule for a while.
Single-tasking helps your brain learn to stay focused on one task for longer periods, so you can get bigger chunks of work done. You’ll also find your work improves, because you’ll have a better chance of entering flow—that elusive state of being so deep in your work that time flies by without you noticing.
Single Task to get more high-quality work done
Speaking of higher quality work, let’s talk about how single-tasking is the key to doing deep work. Associate professor and author Cal Newport uses the term deep work when talking about the kind of work that requires long stretches of uninterrupted focus time, and makes a big difference in your job or your career. For Newport, an academic theoretician, his deep work is research projects. For an author, it’s when they shut up and write the book. For a developer, it’s being elbow-deep in code, creating something new.
Unfortunately, most of us these days are “drowning in the shallows,” according to Newport. We’re stuck spending the majority of our time on busywork—those pesky tasks that have to be done, and can be time-consuming, but don’t actually help us move forward. Answering emails, scheduling appointments, attending meetings that aren’t really useful are all examples of busywork.
When you’re overrun by busywork, you have to actually work at making time for deep work. One way Newport suggests doing this is by creating an environment that’s used purely for deep work.
He points to examples of writers who build or buy reclusive huts to work in, and disappear from society until their books are written. Many writers have rooms, huts, or houses they write all their books in. Those spaces are for deep work only, and aren’t tainted by busywork like meetings and emails.
Image via Cal Newport
As John Cleese says, creating a protected environment where you do your deep work tells your “tortoise brain,” the part that does creative work, but is hard to coax out amongst the hustle and bustle of modern life, that it’s safe to emerge. Your tortoise brain learns that this place is for deep work, and it starts to emerge on cue when you’re in that environment.
Just as your brain learns patterns of timing, it can learn a pattern of space, and know that when you’re in this place, you only do deep work.
This approach, Newport says, makes “work an experience, not a chore.” He predicts that in the future we might be able to use virtual reality to help us create a deep work environment right at our desks.
In the meantime, you can try a similar approach without having to build or buy an entire cabin in the woods.
Find a workspace that suits your personal deep work, and protect it. If it means a favorite armchair or a tiny, unused meeting room in your office, it doesn’t matter. It just needs to be separate from where you do busywork.
When you’re in that protected space, practice single-tasking on your most important deep work. Try taking just one deep work task with you, and cutting yourself off (as much as possible) from potential busywork interruptions, like email or chat rooms.
Start with these rules for single tasking
Finally, let’s go over some practical ground rules to help you practice single-tasking. Leo Babauta, author of zenhabits.net, has been practicing single-tasking himself for years, and uses these rules to help him get back on track when multitasking is taking hold again.
- Only have one browser tab open at once (or set of tabs, if they’re related to one task)
- Focus on what you want to get done—if you’re not sure, it’s easier to get distracted
- If you start reading an article, read it to completion or save it for later in an app like Instapaper—don’t leave it open all day in your browser
- Use one app at a time on your phone, rather than switching quickly between several
- When you’re interrupted or you switch tasks, take notice of what you’re doing so you’re aware of your behavior
- Have more digital-free time
This last rule is an important one. If email, social media, and internal chat are your main distractions, spending more time completely away from your phone or computer can help your brain get used to longer periods of time without those distractions.
Finally, single-tasking can be practiced on things like having dinner or spending time with your family just as much as on work tasks. Leaving your computer turned off and your phone in another room can help you enforce single-tasking more easily by making those common distractions unavailable.
We’ll give the last word to Leo Babauta, who has caught himself multitasking many times, and had to remind himself to focus on a single task. Even though it takes effort, he believes single-tasking is worth it for the boost in true productivity:
… I think giving in to constant switch and distraction is a way to run away. It feels busy and productive, but it’s an avoidance.
What about you Foundr family? Let us know your tips for staying on task in the comments below!