The Ability to Single-Task

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

The past few days haven’t been terrific and the fault for this lies squarely with me.

So…I dropped my phone in water.  Apparently, this is not a good thing to do to smart phones.  Not only did I drop it in water, I didn’t even realize I’d dropped it into water.  There was no quick rescue, so the phone was submerged for quite a while.  Once I discovered it, I tried sticking it into a bag of quick-rice, but boy, that thing was dead.

I have also broken a plastic container that was full of leftovers (yes, this is hard to do! But somehow…), chipped a bowl, ran into a doorjamb, and burned two things I was cooking.  Even for me, this is a long list of issues.

The interesting thing is that after my phone was destroyed (it was actually the last in the series of unfortunate events), I immediately stopped having these calamities.  I’m not going to blame my phone 100%, but it apparently was a significant contributing factor.

A mom-oriented blog that I frequently read recently warned against the hazards of distracted living  in a post by a mother whose child could have drowned in a tub while she was distracted…the kind of cautionary tale to strike fear in a parent’s heart.

I do multi-task some things very well.  If one of the things is completely mindless…ordinarily housework of some kind or exercise…then I can do it and write the next scene of my book in my head or plan a blog post or do any other thoughtful task.

But if something requires attention—whether it’s a conversation with someone or measuring ingredients for supper—then I should just focus 100% on what I’m doing.  Plus, it’s just really starting to stress me out to do too much at one time. I get a sort of a frantic feeling.

Not only that, I’ve noticed a distinct problem with single-tasking.  I’ve gotten so capable at multi-tasking, that my single-tasking abilities have taken a nosedive.

The phone’s accessibility and bright, shiny icons mean that I check email and social media more than I intend to.  And, when I check them, I’m usually doing something else at the same time.

What also feeds into this is a general restlessness that I have. It’s also present when I write.

My top tip for combatting restlessness for writing time is to:

1) Either close all the windows I have open, turn off email/Twitter/Facebook/other notifications, unplug the modem, or go somewhere with no WiFi (increasingly hard to do)

2) Then set a timer for myself for writing.  Either use Online Stopwatch or I’ll Google “set timer for ___minutes” and let Google count it down.

3) Get done what I need to get done in the space before that restlessness strikes –for me, that will usually be about twenty minutes— and then do something else for twenty minutes…ordinarily for me, that’s going to be something active (if, obviously, I haven’t left the house to write).

4) Then write for another twenty minutes, especially if I’m on deadline.  Repeat until I hit whatever my goal is.

Now I just need to apply that approach to the rest of my day and I should be golden. :)  I get more done when I’m single-tasking, I feel less-stressed, and whatever I’m focusing on is better-completed.

This is, for those of you who want to adapt it for yourself, basically the Pomodoro technique and I’ve been using it off and on since I heard about it. Michael Hyatt explained it well in this post: How to Use Batching to Become More Productive.  It works well for me for task-completion.

When I single-task, I get more done, faster. When I get more done, I have more time to stare into space and brainstorm and form ideas.  I always know I haven’t had enough quiet time in my day when I start getting tons of ideas right before I fall asleep…it’s sometimes the only moment of the day when I’m not juggling several things at once.

How is your multi-tasking?  How does it affect your writing, if it does?  If you multi-task well, how well can you single-task?


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26 thoughts on “The Ability to Single-Task

  1. Elizabeth, seers often emphasise on one-pointed attention to the task at hand as a means to complete it successfully rather than doing too many things at the same time and achieving little or nothing. I multi-task all the time and I find it especially distracting when I’m editing three copies for my newspaper at the same time. Now I try and open just one Word file and edit its content. It’s not easy. I wonder if there is an ‘AA’ equivalent for multi-tasking to help get rid of this not-so harmless addiction.

  2. Hi Elizabeth .. distractions in life are a real problem .. I can usually put them to one side – and I’m not that social .. not intentionally, just the way life is .. but right now I need to concentrate on a couple of things and not let other bits get in the way .. I’ll do it!

    I hope you get that phone sorted .. and can compartmentalise – and I’ll go over and read Michael Hyatt’s post – he has good content.

    Cheers Hilary

  3. Wow, Alex, you can work and blog at the same time. That’s extraordinary. Elizabeth, when I was younger I was a great multi-tasker, but looking back, nothing probably got the attention it needed. I used to want to just get things done. Now I spend more time on each thing and I am much less stressed.

  4. Prashant–Very wise. And you’re right…when I look at the tasks I’ve completed when multi-tasking, they’re *finished*, but they’re not as well-done as they’d have been if I’d been single-tasking. Even something very, very simple…walking on a treadmill and reading a book, for instance. I won’t have walked as quickly or as long and I won’t have absorbed as much of what I’m reading.

    I hear, Prashant, that our brains are getting rewired with this multi-tasking. I don’t understand the science behind it, but read an article on it. Something to do with the synapses? Yes, definitely like an addiction.

    Hilary–Sounds like you’ve got a good plan!

    Yes, luckily, I had insurance on the phone (I believe my husband and I put insurance on our plans thinking that our *children* were going to do something like this, not me…ha!) and so I’ve now got a replacement. Now to make sure that I don’t fall into the same trap again.

    Hyatt’s content is usually very smart…I do enjoy reading his blog.

  5. Elizabeth – I am so sorry to hear about your ‘phone. The exact same thing happened to me a few months ago! About single-tasking…. I’ve found that I absolutely have to have just one document up on my computer at any time. Otherwise I completely lose my focus and then of course nothing I write is good. I’ve also had to discipline myself to write a certain amount before, for example, I do blog rounds or check Twitter. Otherwise one can get drawn into the social media vortex. I think we all have to ‘look up’ once in a while. It really is a balance between that and focusing on writing.

  6. Twenty minutes and then do something new for a while. I might try it and see what happens. When I need to focus, I usually can though.
    I can work and blog at the same time, but some tasks require me to close the second computer and just focus.

  7. I’m one of those who always has around ten tabs open at anytime and flits form one to the other, getting little actually done. I drive myself (and my hubs) insane. But I will try your suggestions. I’m always looking for help to focus. I’ve never been good at it :(

  8. Elizabeth, I know it’s trivial but I can’t stop wondering – HOW exactly did you drop your phone in water? My imagination is running riot….

  9. My life became better when I got rid of my Blackberry. I can still text and Tweet, and that feed my Facebook account, so I’m not disconnected. But it’s not nearly as distracting as carrying a mini-computer that after a while *demands* that I check my email and social media status updates.

    One thing I found very helpful is only having one tab on my browser open at a time, and when I’m writing I turn off my browser completely. I also made a bunch of bookmarks that help me streamline where I spend my time. And I must give props to Instapaper, which lets me save articles and other webpages to read later.

  10. Alex–I think you’ve got the best job in the world!

    Karen–It’s the stress, isn’t it? It just makes it so not-worth-it. And then half the time I do the task poorly, too. Your blog inspires me to be more mindful. I’m just not there yet, though!

    Frances–Oh, my gosh. So…when I cook, I use the Evernote app on my phone….my recipes are clipped on there. I fill the sink with soapy water, so that I can clean dishes as I cook (and probably also as I’m thinking about my story and responding to notifications on my phone as I’m looking at the Evernote recipe.) The phone is near the sink, I’m a clumsy person anyway, I nudge the phone into the sink as I’m sticking in some pans to soak, I go merrily on my way stirring the ground beef, corn, black beans, green chili, diced tomatoes for the Mexican casserole…ugh. Don’t try this at home! :)

    Deb–I hear people get *really* addicted to the Blackberry (Crackberries, weren’t they called, at one time?) My husband just got one for work, so we’ll see! He doesn’t seem to need to feel as plugged in as I do, though.

    And…you’re very wise. Right now I’ve got 5 windows open with about 3-4 tabs each. I need to stop this.

  11. What a great post! It’s definitely becoming more difficult for me to single-task. I get antsy. But what I really worry about is the generations coming up. All they know is multi-tasking and when they’re required to single-task, they get almost frantic.

  12. Multi-tasker was my middle name for decades, until it came to a crashing halt in my mid-50’s. In fact, I can only get serious writing done on days that I’ve specifically arranged to be without other tasks, at least not until dinnertime. If I’m on really good form, I can babysit the laundry at the same time, but other than that–(blows raspberry). Yesterday was “other tasks” day. Today is a writing day (purrs with contentment).

  13. Donna–I worry about them, too. I hear all these stories about kids trying to multi-task when driving…scares me to death. Keep telling my son to be sure to focus on the driving–and ONLY the driving.

    Meg–If only every day could be writing day, right? :) I know what you mean…those other tasks get in the way.

    Maybe some of my problems with multi-tasking are resulting from my middle age. You’re the second person to comment that you had to stop at that point…

  14. Margot–That is very sensible! I can’t ever seem to have the one window open, except for a concerted effort when I’m writing.

    Shah–It’s growing increasingly harder with the technology and I don’t think that’s going to change.

  15. I’m sorry to hear about your phone! I only got a smart phone two years ago, and now I’m addicted to it. Not good.

    When writing, I have to shut everything off. I’m am so easily distracted! I like your idea of focusing on one thing at a time.

  16. Don’t give up on the phone in the rice trick. Leave it covered in rice for a few days and put the bowl of rice on top of a heat register in the house to keep it warm or in a sunny window. A friend of mine had hers come to life after several days.
    As for multi-tasking, I have had to face what a bad habit it is for me and really be strict about putting aside non-distraction time. I use timers, too, and also a site called that I recommend checking out. Good luck everyone with staying on task and meeting your goals!

  17. Elizabeth–
    Thank you for this post. It solidifies my decision to stick with a dumb phone. Actually (this is a confession), it solidifies my decision to buy a dumb phone: the only phone I’ve ever had is bolted to the wall, with a wire running to what’s known quaintly as a phone jack. I’ve come to think the whole obsession with being connected 24-7 is symptomatic of something, but of what I’m not sure. Maybe just of preferring anything to one’s own company.

  18. Julie–They’re so, so easy to get addicted to! One thing at a time is hard to manage, but it is ultimately so much more effective.

    wrightingwords–Oh, shoot! Well, I was impatient. Already have a new phone (had insurance on them). Sigh. Should have given it a bit longer.

    I have heard several times about 750 Words, but haven’t tried it out. Thanks for the reminder!

  19. You are right it is so hard to concentrate on writing. I often sit in my van and type. There are a few parks without wifi close by. I’m sure it looks a little weird to people passing by but it’s effective.

  20. Silas–It’s getting tough to find those spots, isn’t it? I write in the carpool line outside my daughter’s middle school…laptop right up against the steering wheel! They *suddenly* got WiFi at the school in the last couple of weeks and I’m devastated. Will have to be strong and disconnect. :)

  21. Barry–Ha! I totally understand. I got sort of looped into a smart phone halfway accidentally, then quickly became a phone addict. :) But I had a flip phone for the longest time.

    I had a conversation with my college roommate recently. When we were kids, there weren’t even any answering machines and everything was still rotary (I guess my generation was right on the cusp of that stuff). If we got sick at school, the school secretary would try to phone our mothers and…if they weren’t home, they couldn’t even leave a message and we’d just hang out in the sick room all day. On cots.

    Times have changed! My kids would be alarmed if they couldn’t get in touch with me at any point that they needed me. There really *are* no sick rooms at the schools anymore. I have a feeling they’d file a missing person report with the police if they couldn’t get me on my phone…. :) This next generation is so, so, so different. They’re very sophisticated in many ways, but their expectations are different. It’s a *real* generation gap.

  22. Elizabeth–
    Ha! back at you–I love the missing-persons idea. On those cots in the school nurse’s office, I doubt bad things happened often, if at all. And you are so right about today’s young people–sophistication tied up with apron strings. The daughter of a good friend, highly intelligent and well-educated, joined the Peace Corps. She was sent to Uzbekistan, but was in constant, daily email and phone contact with her parents. Even so, the parents grew restive, and finally actually flew to Uzbekistan, to confirm all was well with their daughter. In psychological terms, I think it’s fair to ask whether the young woman ever really left home. And obviously, the whole cyber-apron strings thing cuts both ways. I, too, was a Peace Corps volunteer–this was back before the Punic Wars, back before satellites. During my time there, I wrote weekly letters to my parents. And once–just once–I spoke with them via a ham-radio phone patch.
    While I’m at it, how about the young couple who not long ago came into a restaurant and sat at the table next to my wife and me. They were with their two kids and what had to be one set of grandparents. Before the waitress came to take the order, the young mom snapped on a pair of latex gloves, then reached in her purse and whipped out a spray applicator of sanitizer. As the grandparents sat looking both embarrassed and resigned, Mom secured the entire dining table against all bacteria.
    This is nuts in so many ways I don’t know where to begin.

  23. Another great article. I’m glad I’m subscribed to your blogs. It’s particularly helpful, as I begin the long journey of writing my first book. Thus far, I have 80 pages of the book, and a 20 page book proposal that I plan on sending to agents/publishers.

    My book is about growing up mixed in SF, and it’s part memoir, part narrative of 35 mixed people. It chronicles my journey of identity formation, bringing in the relevant stories of others.

    As only one mixed person, I cannot encapsulate the wide berth of experiences among mixed people, so I plan on incorporating as many stories and perspectives as possible without drowning my reader.

  24. Elizabeth–
    I know you can’t go on with this, but I’m unable to resist responding to “I think the change (apron string cutting) here seems most often to happen when the child *marries* and becomes the responsibility of someone else.”
    The same globetrotting young woman who joined the Peace Corps got married a couple years ago. Early this month she gave birth to her first child, a boy. Is she now the responsibility of someone else? Well, in advance of the birth,mom flew to the opposite coast to be “present at the creation.” She’s been there ever since. Dad is now on the scene as well, plus the other set of in-laws have joined the gathering. I can’t help wondering whether the young husband is feeling slightly superfluous.

  25. Barry–I think the change (apron string cutting) here seems most often to happen when the child *marries* and becomes the responsibility of someone else. :) But of course….these kids are marrying a lot later, too. I was married at 22. We don’t see much of that now (maybe for good reason). And many of my friends didn’t marry until late…or haven’t married at all.

    Oh, lots of OCD stuff with germs these days! But I do hear that if we over-sanitize, that’s dangerous, too (the kids don’t have exposure to allergens, which increases risk of asthma. Plus, super-germs develop). It’s very, very different now.

    Julie–Congratulations on your progress! You must also have done a ton of research to have so many other voices in the book….that’s a lot of hard work.

    That sounds like a great way to incorporate your own story and those of others–integrating them throughout the book.

  26. Before I started my business, I didn’t know the real importance of time management. I have a bad habit of multi-tasking. It’s so bad that I’m starting to see in my daily work that I’m not being productive. My goal is to limit multi-tasking as much as I can before January 1, 2014. I have new ideas and goals in mind, but if I don’t control multi-tasking it will haunt me.
    I will use my timer on my phone to keep me focused on one activity at a time.

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