I’m not sure when or where (although I frequently hear people blame some episode of Oprah’s talk show) that ‘multitasking’ became a thing, but it did. Despite research in neuroscience to the contrary, so many people believe it’s possible to do several things at once, that I’d be willing to bet that the title here offended some folks!
Our technology, jobs, social habits, and so much more have evolved around this myth, and in a dangerous way. It’s faulty thinking that we can text during a TV show and still walk away with details from both. The brain just does not do things simultaneously – at all.
The reality is that we just switch back and forth from task to task. Our brain goes from hearing that TV show, to reading a text, to answering a question from our partner who just walked into the room, to folding the laundry. It’s a start and stop process that occurs within the brain, and this process is difficult on us.
It takes up cognitive energy and space to start and stop tasks over and over, which eats up small bits of time. Mistakes are made, things are missed, and we wind up having to circle back to get something right. This generates stress, which makes us less efficient.
Multitasking causes us to be less able to focus attention on tasks, it increases stress, and it can even impact how we view our effectiveness, so even if we still got things done, we’re likely to feel that we didn’t get enough done.
Among many answers to the issues that alleged multitasking causes is the cultivation of single-tasking. For most of us that requires a bit of a mindset shift. It can feel wrong to focus on one thing at a time, or even one major thing for an entire day.
To cultivate single-tasking as a skill, try out a few, or all of these – just not all at once!
1. When you’re carpooling, riding in an airplane or bus, practice observation of what is actually going on around you. If you’re anything like me, you may tend to pop in earbuds and get caught up on your favorite podcast or to turn on music. Try going without those things and just observe on your ride.
2. The next time you sit down to watch the latest episode of your favorite show, or you and your partner decide to put on a movie, resist the urge to fold the laundry and check your phone. Watch the show from start to finish instead of treating it like a background noise!
3. Keep your workspace clean from distractions and uncluttered when you sit down to do whatever kind of work you’re doing. You may be sitting at the family desk to do bills, looking down into your sketchpad for a bit of creative time, or sitting down for work at home in the office – be sure your desk and work area are organized within reason and free from distractions so that you can focus on what you’re there to do.
4. Pick a daily detox day for your phone and other gadgets. Turn them off for the whole day. If this worries you – let your friends and family know you’re taking the day off from the digital.
5. Plan your day by listing out the tasks you need or want to accomplish. Keep it simple. When it’s in writing you may be less likely to add unnecessary or less important things to your agenda.
6. Eat your breakfast or have your morning coffee without scrolling through emails, social media, or using your phone generally. Focus on the food or coffee while it lasts. Many times I’m guilty of doing several things during breakfast, or thinking about the dishes I’m about to have to do.
7. When you’re having a conversation with your partner, friend, or whoever, really listen to what they’re saying, without actively waiting for your turn to talk by thinking about your potential responses.
8. Write down what comes to mind when you have an idea or think of something else to do. This helps me not drop what I’m doing and start doing something else. I can just write down whatever random idea, like “I’d like to paint the cabinet,” which could easily turn into a 45-minute internet search for paint colors, painting techniques, etc. and take me away from what I’m doing. I still get to keep my idea and can come back to it, but I stay relatively close to the task I’m already on.
9. Let yourself get bored. When was the last time you just sat down and did nothing? It’s likely been a while! Next time you’re sitting or standing around, and you’re not doing anything, notice it and stay in it rather than scanning the room for something else to do.
10. Create nightly rituals or a process for slowing down the day. As you go through each step, pay attention, and do each one at a time.
These are simple single-task practices that you can incorporate into your day to start building that habit for yourself. Undoing the present thinking you have around how productive you should be or how many things you should be doing in a moment takes time - it won't happen overnight. Starting to work in one or two of these as you can is a great start to building the single-task muscle!
For some studies (and there are tons more, give it a google!) -