Single-Tasking for Productivity

Stressed woman puts both hands to her head as the post title "Single-Tasking for Productivity" is superimposed on the top.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I used to think that I was a fairly adept multitasker, as long as one of the tasks was something completely mindless (I could stir things in a pot and make a list at the same time.  I could vacuum and brainstorm).  But after instances  where I’ve spattered supper on the stove and vacuumed up things that weren’t supposed to be vacuumed, I’ve come to the realization that I really shouldn’t multitask at all.

I’ve made an effort to dial it back and become more effective at focusing on a single task.

Is it really multitasking?

In the article “Brain, Interrupted” by New York Time columnists Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson, they stated:

In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a meeting is really doing something called “rapid toggling between tasks,” and is engaged in constant context switching.

The danger in this, as stated in the article, is that we may never really return to the main task we needed to work on.  The other tasks act as distractions … or maybe, more accurately, deterrents…to our productivity.

Multitasking too often means I’m training myself not to be able to maintain focus when I need to.

I’ve noticed, since the advent of computers and smartphones, that I have a much harder time focusing on reading and writing for any great length of time.  That urge to check email or other messages is pretty overwhelming and can, on occasion, completely derail what I’m trying to do.

Multitasking can create stress .

When I’m multitasking, I have this very frenetic, stressed feeling.   It’s hard to explain, but it’s not pleasant.

How I single-task:

I close other windows and tabs on my computer.

I put my phone out of arm’s reach.

I set a timer for my work.  Then I set a timer for a break.  Then I set another timer to work again.  (For more about the Pomodoro method, read this.)

Batching tasks can also help.  I may write several blog posts in one day, getting into the ‘groove’ of blogging.  Or I might brainstorm and outline one day, staying in a creative zone.

Do you have a hard time maintaining focus on a single task?  How do you pull off focusing?

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16 thoughts on “Single-Tasking for Productivity

  1. I can multi-task, but I do better when I focus on one thing. I also think men are better at focusing than women are. But there are so many distractions now that didn’t exist twenty years ago, it makes it difficult for all of us.

  2. “rapid toggling between tasks” – I like that. Sometimes I can do it. Other times, the whole thing falls down like a house of cards. I’m better if I stick to one task until it’s done and then move on. Unless it’s writing or editing. I can’t stick to those until they’re done because I’d be at it for days. I break those into manageable chunks. Do a chunk, go do something else for a while, come back and do another chunk, etc. I’m toggling between tasks, but I’m not necessarily ‘rapid’ about it. ;o)

  3. Chuckling from my household with two daughters, two sons, and one husband. I beat them all if we’re making focusing a contest, but afterward it’s a tie between one son and one daughter.

    Recently, I started noticing that my ability to concentrate was diminishing, so January is no television or news while I dig into a lot of books, fiction and nonfiction (and writing). It’s already made a difference: I can easily write 500 words in 30 minutes, and I find myself looking forward to some of my big history and policy books. Now if only I could get rid of this lousy smartphone, ha ha!

    1. I like your January goal! I should try something like that. I increased my reading time last year and really enjoyed it–trying to do the same this year, but it would sure be easier with no television.

      The smartphone is always the problem, isn’t it? I used to be able to focus so much better without that thing around.

  4. I really like this perspective, Elizabeth. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been better at single-tasking than at multi-tasking? I find I do a better job on everything if I limit the number of things I have to focus on at once.

  5. I think I lost my ability to focus on one thing years ago. I have two computers on my desk, one for personal and one for DLP, and I’m always bouncing between the two. Sometimes I open up the laptop and then it’s three. LOL I would probably do better with one task at a time.

  6. Like you, I used to multi-task fairly well, but now I’m lucky if I can focus on one thing and stay focused. The distractions are many, as you said. I like your idea of putting the phone out of reach. And why are we so eager to see what emails and texts have come in. Nothing is life-threatening, so why the urgency?

  7. Yep, that dang smartphone is like a siren-call when I’m stuck on a scene or agonizing over a plot point. Based on the comments above, I’m wondering if all that scanning of screens (even if only during my leisure time) is affecting my ability to concentrate. I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

    Guess I’ll just have to read more books!

  8. In my younger days I was good at multitasking, but now it’s too stressful. When I start stressing, I make a list of what needs to be done. Then I cross off each item as I go until I’m done. It gets rid of that anxious feeling that I’m forgetting something. Focusing on one thing at a time helps.

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