Decrease anxiety by simplifying your life: For increased productivity and focus become a single-tasker & forget multitasking
Quick question: when last did you have the privilege of focusing on only one task, and being able to focus on it until it was complete? Next question: for how many of you did that sound like a foreign concept, even something that makes you feel panicky and anxious? Last question: who still believes that multitasking is one of their strong points?
Focusing on more than one task at a time, jumping between two or more tasks, or running from one thing to the next in short succession are all considered to be multitasking. For years and years, it was considered a crown of glory to be able to multitask. A coveted and highly sought-after “skill”, many job seekers listed it with pride under the “personal skills” section of their resume, and many a company hired new employees based on their multitasking abilities. For some odd reason, it was believed that doing a bunch of things at the same time is more productive than doing one thing until it is completely done, and then moving on to the next task. Even if the process took exactly the same amount of time. If you can do 4 things at the same time, and it takes you an hour to do them, how is that better than someone who takes 15min per task? The biggest difference? The single tasker’s output will most probably be of better quality and be more complete than the multitasker.
Think I am making this up? I am not that cruel. I myself was a firm believer in doing a lot of things at the same time. Until I realized that 1. I struggle to focus, so by making myself have to focus on different things at the same time while switching between them all the time, was really just setting myself up to fail. And 2. I spent so much time trying to catch up with my train of thought that I ended up wasting extra time. After multitasking the hell out of my morning I will sit back and realise all the mistakes I made, and what still had to be done. I would notice all the errors I didn’t pick up, omissions, slipups, and more. When I forced myself to focus on only one thing, and until it is done (or the set time is up), my productivity shot through the roof. I ran through my work and picked up fewer errors and mistakes. That sealed the deal.
There are instances when multitasking can be effective, but only when you group a high-focus task with a low-or no-focus activity. This way your brain doesn’t have to jump from one set of thoughts to another. A few examples: listening to music while you exercise, listening to an audiobook while you drive, or having a casual conversation while cooking. Multi-tasking is effective when you pair an activity that you do on auto-pilot or without much thought, with something that requires a bit of brainpower, but not that much. The problem comes in when you attempt to complete two tasks that both need conscious thought and decisions. And because that is often the case, especially in the workplace, multitasking is hugely counterproductive. It forces us to divide our attention and waste time when our mind needs to change or shift focus to the next task, and then back again. This increases the time needed for a project, reduces our decision-making abilities and is ultimately harmful to our health. When we multitask, our body releases high concentrations of cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol for prolonged periods of time can lead to burnout, cognitive decline, and decision fatigue. All bad, especially when you need to be creative and innovative.
Single-tasking is difficult at first. It is tiring and sometimes even draining to focus on one thing for so long. Many of us do not possess that level of concentration. But the mind is a muscle like any other, and by exercising and flexing it we make it fit and healthy, and over time it becomes easier and easier to give your undivided attention to the task in front of you. Plus you get that extra dopamine kick when you finish your job, and you finish it well.
There are other benefits as well, the biggest ones being a reduction in stress (because you get more done), practising your ability to work through complex processes and problems (because you are now able to focus) and increasing your creativity to find solutions for problems that you only have a set amount of time to solve. Because it does not come naturally to most of us, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley recommends following these 3 steps:
Step 1: Get rid of all distractions
Ensure that your work environment has nothing that can draw your attention away from the task that you should be focusing on. That includes your phone, notifications of emails or other messages, noise, etc. Remove everything from your workspace except what you need to complete the chosen task, and close the browser tabs that do not have direct relevance to the activity. To make it really easy cutting out digital distractions, check out Rescue Time (https://blog.rescuetime.com/getting-the-most-out-of-rescuetimes-website-blocking/), a website blocker that you can set to block certain websites during certain times. The app will also give you a detailed report at the end of your day or session of how long you spent on what. Another tip: leave the Internet-based research till the end. This way you minimize the chance of getting distracted by doing all of our favourite past-time: link jumping.
Step 2: Start small, but with a timer
For the untrained mind, it can be really difficult and draining to simply jump into a prolonged single-focus method of working. Ease yourself into it by starting small, even with 5 min of uninterrupted focus. Set a timer, and as you get better at it you extend the time. Once you feel comfortable, you can use the Pomodoro technique (25min of work followed by a five-minute break) and even later, focusing for longer times.
Furthermore, break larger commitments into smaller chunks that are realistically achievable in the time you have set out for the tasks. Priorities are so important – ensure you begin with the most important things and work your way down the list to the most trivial parts. This way you ensure you focus on the big things when you are still fresh and energized, and the small things when you are tired and drained. If even the small things are important, then leave them over for the following day. Do not allow sub-par work, rather manage your time differently.
Step 3: Take definite breaks
The tip to make it stick: take definite breaks in between focusing to relax your mind and replenish your energy stores. When the timer goes off, whether it was 5 min or 60 min, get up to take a walk, or make tea. Anything that forces you to really take a break, albeit a quick one. Going out into nature substantially increases your ability to concentrate.
Instead of fighting yourself and your abilities, rather try one of these alternatives:
Single- or mono-tasking:
You focus on only one task at a time. Single-tasking is most efficient when it is paired with proper planning and time management. When you manage your time like the scarce resource it is you will stop wasting it on trivial and banal things. In order to really effectively single task, plan out your day with a list of things that must be done, in order of importance. Assign a time to each of them, and set your alarm to go off at the end of the identified session. Whatever is not done by the end of the allocated time can be circled back to after the rest of the tasks have been taken care of. If you feel you have too much on your plate to get done in this manner, I would suggest critically evaluating if all of the things you have on your list are essential, time-sensitive, and most importantly – if you must do them personally. Sometimes we can outsource unimportant tasks, freeing up time for us to focus on what really matters.
“Chunking” paired with time blocking
The idea behind this strategy is to group similar tasks together and to then set aside a block off time for each group. Similar to single-tasking, the difference comes in the grouping. With single tasking, you assume you will still jump from one activity to the next, just after focusing on the one at hand exclusively. With chunking, the jump is less severe and only after a longer period of time since you spend more time focusing on similar jobs. This ensures longer stretches of focus and productivity.
Because my biggest goal and desire is to lead a simple life, I have now made single tasking the only way that I am allowed to work. By doing only one thing at a time, I am allowing myself to uncomplicated my work life. I am decreasing the anxiety I would often feel when I realise I am running out of time, or that I made serious mistakes in work that I sent out in a rush. By changing the way I work, I could improve my chances of success by increasing not only my effectiveness but also my efficiency. And I manage to keep my stress levels down.