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Happiness Tip: Do Just One Thing

Multitasking talent is nothing to brag about.

If we just focused on one task at a time, we’d actually be more productive in the long run, and we’d be less exhausted at the end of the day. This is because multitasking exhausts more energy and time than single-tasking does. Take it from productivity experts Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy:

Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another — stopping to answer an email or take a phone call, for instance — increased the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25 percent, a phenomenon known as “switching time.”

It is often harder for me to single-task than it is to multi-task. I have to totally remove all distractions to single-task: I do my best writing at a desk I’ve set up in a large closet that doesn’t get phone reception, with my email disabled. I group my daily tasks into two categories: “Think Work” and “Action Items.” Then I block off time on my calendar for both things. I do my Think Work at the closet desk totally uninterrupted, setting a timer so that I take a break every 60-90 minutes.

My Action Items take less focus, but I still tackle them one at a time in sequence — not parallel. Unless I’m working my way through my email, my email application is closed. I answer the phone only for scheduled calls. I leave my iPhone in do-not-disturb mode (so that I can see if my kids’ school is calling, but that’s about it) and reply to texts when I’m taking a break. Having these “rules” for myself has dramatically increased my productivity.

Take Action: If you are a chronic multi-tasker, make a plan for how you can focus more and multitask less. Do you need to remove distractions? Group similar activities?

Join the Discussion: What works best for you? Inspire others by leaving a comment.

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  • I’ve definitely found this to be true. The only time multi-tasking works well for me is when one activity is purely physical and one is mental, ie: listen to an audio while walking or working out, ponder a problem or plan something while scrubbing the floor. In those cases, I find that having something physical to do can help my thought processes. But if both tasks involve our minds it doesn’t work well. And when if we’re trying to accomplish other things while talking to our kids it can make them feel like they aren’t important enough to merit our undivided attention.

    • So many good points made here! I don’t even count doing repetitive physical tasks (dishes, walking) at the same time as a mental one as multi-tasking, to your point.

  • Beth

    Christine, I’m just curious since you mentioned “working your way through email”; how often do you check email during your day? I think I probably check more often than I really need to…

    • If I have a normal day in the office, I check once in the morning, and limit my time to 20 minutes. I respond to urgent stuff, but mostly just weed, sort, delete. Then once about 3:00pm I take as much time as I have, or I need, to actually clear my inbox to zero. (Of course when I’m traveling that all goes out the window…)

      • Beth

        thank you! do you have a certain program you use?

  • Robin

    While I agree that single tasking is probably more efficient, it was likely a motivator of the industrial revolution and in the creation of specialist, it is not really a new idea. I have concerns that this argument can be taken too far and is used to continue to undervalue care taking roles like farming, parenting, teaching and nursing that are messy, multi-tasking by nature because of the difficult and complex interactions between people. I think multi-tasking with social technology is a relatively new phenomenon, taking on the phone or texting while interacting with your kids or anything disconnects you from the job at hand, but gardening, cooking, cleaning, reading, art etc. can all be teachable and connecting moments if you share them with other people. Multi-tasking as a way to recognize and form connection shouldn’t be undervalued. I don’t think that is your intent, but I find the issue a lot more complicated. I prefer the term mindfulness because I think it allows for multi-tasking if the tasks are consciously and purposefully combined.

    • Emilie

      Interesting that you should give examples of my three roles: nurse, parent, and farmer. I definitely find that single tasking is a great time saver. While many small things may need to be done in rapid succession, I certainly find in nursing that single tasking the listening–to look the person in the eye, listen with undivided attention, if only for a few minutes–goes miles further than talk while my hands are doing something else, because when I am working on another task, I am not really listening. That can happen only with undivided attention. Also I totally have to concentrate on the task at hand at other times: I must get the right medication to the right patient at the right time, and while I am doing that I cannot be listening to them. The same is true with parenting. Have your children ever said, “Mom, you’re not listening!” and you declare that yes you were and repeat verbatim what they said? But, of course, they were right; you were not listening with undivided attention, but thinking about something else. Farming I find to be essentially single tasking, as I totally work in the NOW. While I may be tagging, banding, vaccinating and sorting lambs in one operation, I must totally concentrate on each of those tasks; certainly I cannot and am not distracted–except with rather negative results–sheep in wrong pen, missed a dose, forgot which lamb was done, etc. Even holding a conversation does not work because the tasks require my concentration. Ditto on baling hay; if I start concentrating on someone’s story, I’m likely to get a misshapen bale or worse.

    • I guess I just don’t really understand your argument that multi-tasking is a way to connect to others, or to recognize connections — I don’t think that there is any evidence that’s true. I also don’t think that advocating doing one thing (consciously) at a time undervalues people in caregiving professions or roles. I do agree that mindfulness and multi-tasking are hard to do.

      • Robin

        I guess I’m in the minority and probably didn’t express myself very well. I think there are two things I am trying to express. One is that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts and that that can be missed if things are too single focused. For example, it took a longtime to figure that my troubles getting pregnant might be related to my thyroid problem. I can’t help thinking that if that hadn’t been two different doctors with a single focus the connection might have been realized sooner. (I guess that’s why I said nurses, even though I know little about the profession. I think they are sometimes better at seeing the whole person and not just parts) Or kids in school who can do math in isolated situations but then can’t apply it to science and social studies. But, I think Emilie is also correct in suggesting that a lot can be missed if you don’t focus fully on an individual or an important communication.
        I appreciated Sandy’s comment and that might be more like my second point maybe that is more likeI’m a part-time elementary teacher and a part-time stay-at-home mom, most of my time is multi-tasking and I love it. I make dinner while helping the kids with their homework or monitoring and mediating their play. They help me with laundry, but we talk about their day.

        • Robin

          Not sure I’m making more sense this time especially with the computer glitch. I do agree that with all our new social technology everyone is multi-tasking in probably negative ways. However, maybe the more difficult problem is trying to do too much in too little time. I like the term mindfulness because, for me, it is a reminder to slow down and do less, in a more conscientious way. My doing less in a more conscientious way, may look different from someone else’s. I think there are different styles.