“I’m great at multitasking!”
We hear this phrase at job interviews, networking events, and from busy people everywhere explaining how they “do it all.” It’s a clever way to brag on many traits at once. When we multitask, we show the world that we are busy, hardworking, clever, and efficient.
But when we multitask, do we truly get more done? Or does it just feel that way?
Neurologically, our brains cannot fully concentrate on two tasks at once. When we believe we are multitasking, the brain is actually just switching very quickly between two or more tasks.
This may work well if none of these jobs require much brain power – for example, when we walk and chew gum at the same time – but it hasn’t been proven effective for thoughtful pursuits. When we multitask, our work suffers in both speed and quality. We also miss the opportunity to be present and mindful with our activities. Only in this state can we achieve a focused state of flow, during which we are capable of our best work.
So, what’s the answer?
Single-tasking is the mindful new pushback to our multitasking culture.
When we single task, we focus completely on one job until it is done. Only then do we start another. This method sounds simple, and it is. However, it can be deceptively difficult to get used to.
Here are four ways to succeed at this new productivity hack:
1. Ground yourself.
Often, we switch from one activity to another because we do not feel fully grounded in our current task. Subconsciously, we are on a continuous search for our footing. Avoid this by establishing solid ground before you start. Take a deep breath, meditate, pray, or connect with a loved one. Drink a cup of coffee. Pet your dog. Do what makes you feel mentally and emotionally at ease. Then, get to work.
2. Take control of your time.
Establish a schedule, and stick to it. This not only prohibits procrastination, but, if done properly, can also encourage mindfulness. For example, suppose you have decided to work on your taxes from 4pm to 6pm. In mindful scheduling, this would mean that tax-related worries are completely confined to this time. They are not allowed to cloud your morning meeting or distract you from the lunch you are having with your partner. This task will have only the time and power you have given it. It will not ruin your whole day.
3. Start Small.
Select a small part of your day, and complete a very simple task singularly and mindfully. For example, commit yourself to a mindful breakfast. Cook, eat, and clean up with nothing to focus on except for the company of your family. This means no phone, newspaper, computer, or television. Encourage your loved ones to do the same. See what you learn about one another. Engaging in these small mindful moments will build your confidence and increase your ability to focus. This will help you to bring single-tasking into more difficult projects.
4. Don’t give up too easily.
Most of us multitask habitually. It can be hard to break that mindset, and will likely require several tries. Was “mindful breakfast” with the family a bust? Try this game with your co-workers. During happy hour, pile your cell phones in the middle of the table. The first person to touch theirs has to pay the check.
If single-tasking doesn’t work for you at first, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. It just means you need more practice in order to see results.
“We are the generation capable of doing many things at once, without enjoying any of them,” wrote Dinesh Kumar Biran. Learn to live in the moment. Dive deeply into one task instead of dipping your toe into five. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.