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How to Do One Thing at a Time—and Stop Multitasking

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We live in an age of multitasking. We spend our days immersed in computers, tablets, phones and other devices that let us do ten things at once, while staying up-to-date on the latest news, sports, emails and tweets from around the world.

Stop multitasking and learn to be more productive. Image source: Envato Elements

There’s just one problem: our brains aren’t built for multitasking.

That’s not my opinion, by the way. It’s the result of countless studies, which I’ll go into later. Many people think they’re good at multitasking, but the research says it simply isn’t true. We get less done, and we do it less accurately and effectively, when we try to multitask. And the people who think they’re good at multitasking are actually the worst at it.

So in this tutorial we’ll look at a better way of working. I’ll first go through some of the research on multitasking and productivity, and then I’ll show you how to set up your day to get more done by cutting out the distractions and focusing on one thing at a time.

In this age of multitasking, it’s not easy to disentangle yourself from the web of distractions and achieve more consistent focus. Unplugging completely and working in monastic serenity is impractical for most of us, even if we wanted to do such a thing. But there are some practical things you can do to help yourself stay on track more often, and to finish each day with the satisfaction of knowing you got the most important things done—one individual task at a time.

1. Accept That You Can’t Multitask

As promised, we’ll start with a look at that research.

The first thing to understand is that strictly speaking, multitasking doesn’t exist. Researchers say that even when we think we’re doing multiple things at once, actually we’re only focusing on one thing at a time, and switching quickly between them.

“Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not,” said Earl Miller, Neuroscience Professor at MIT, in an NPR article. “You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

This switching has a cost, in terms of time, attention and effectiveness. A study reported in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology found that students were up to 40% slower at solving complicated mathematical problems when they had to switch to other tasks. Separate research by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multitasking with electronic media temporarily reduces your IQ by 10 points. 

But perhaps you think you’re good at multitasking. Maybe you do it all the time, and consider it one of your strengths. This research doesn’t apply to you, does it?

Well, consider the results of this experiment, in which people who considered themselves good at multitasking—so good at it that they frequently used their cellphones while driving—actually scored lower than other people on a test of multitasking ability.

This is just a small sample of the research that’s been done on multitasking, and most of it points in the same direction: multitasking just doesn’t work. As Stanford University Psychology Professor Clifford Nass told NPR:

The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.

2. Set Up Your Day to Focus

So if multitasking is bad for your productivity, we should just stop doing it, right? Ideally, yes, but if you’ve ever tried it, you’ve probably realized that it’s not that easy.

Whether you work in an office or run your own business, you probably have to juggle lots of different tasks in any given day, as well as navigating the world of near-instant communication in which we live. You can’t just hang up a “Busy” sign and tell your clients to come back next week.

So creating a distraction-free work environment in which you can focus on single tasks for longer takes some conscious effort. We’ll look at some useful techniques in this and the following sections.

It starts at the beginning of each work day. Before you plunge into problem-solving mode, take a few minutes and consciously plan your day. This doesn’t mean creating a laundry-list of tasks to complete. Instead, focus on a few key objectives, things that are aligned with your longer-term business objectives and will help you move forward.

Remember the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule: 80% of the results come from 20% of the causes. Or in this case, 80% of your success comes from 20% of your effort. Which tasks constitute that 20%? Try to limit it to just three tasks that you really need to complete today in order to consider the day successful when you go to bed.

Then estimate the time you’ll need to complete each task, and block out time in your calendar to do it. The idea is to make those blocks of time distraction-free, so that you just “single-task” at those times, and get your most important tasks done. You can use the organizational tools of your choice to accomplish this, but remember that web-based apps come with their own potential for distraction, so you may want to consider a traditional planner.

3. Ignore Email for as Long as Possible

OK, so you’ve got a good, clear picture of the most important things you need to do today. Now you go online, check your email, and find a whole stack of new messages waiting for you. By the time you’ve finished answering all those emails, a couple of hours have gone by, and you’ve made no progress on any of the things you just decided were important.

What’s worse, you’ve lost the focus and clarity you had first thing in the morning. You probably had to do some research to answer some of the emails, so you now have a whole bunch of apps and browser tabs open, and your head is buzzing with a lot of irrelevant information.

By starting your day with email, you let other people define how you spend your time. Maybe some of those emails were really urgent, but in all likelihood, most of them could have waited at least another hour or two, if not another day or two, without the sky falling in.

So try this: Allow yourself a block of time each morning to work on your most important tasks, before even looking at your email inbox. If this idea makes you uncomfortable, you can start small: maybe allow yourself half an hour.

If you survive this email-free block of time without a mob of angry clients marching on you with torches and pitchforks, consider extending it to 45 minutes, an hour, two hours. If you can (gasp!) survive the whole morning without checking email, your productivity will skyrocket. This may not be possible, but just find the right balance for you and your business.

focused workfocused workfocused work
Get rid of distractions and be more productive. Image source: Envato Elements

4. Switch Off Notifications

OK, there’s more bad news for email addicts. Researchers at Microsoft and University of Illinois found that when people were interrupted by emails during the day, there was a huge cost in terms of lost time and focus.

For each email interruption, people spent nearly 10 minutes on average dealing with the email, and another 10 to 15 minutes before returning to focused activity on the disrupted task. In many cases, the delays were much longer: “We found that 27% of task suspensions resulted in more than two hours of time until resumption.”

The lesson is clear: even if it’s “just a quick email”, it takes you out of what you were doing, and it can take a long time to get back on track. So switch off email notifications when you’re working on your most important daily tasks, and for that matter switch off any other notifications that your computer or phone may be set up to produce.

Remember, you’ve blocked out time to work on a single task, and you know that you don’t have any important meetings or other events during this time. The only notification you need is a simple timer to let you know when your allocated time is up and you can move on to your next task or event. There should be no other little buzzes or beeps.

By the way, if you’re worried about missing an emergency call from your spouse or your kids’ school, most smartphones allow you to set them to silent but still allow selected people to get in touch with you.

5. Unplug When You Can

The “nuclear option” for focusing successfully on a single task is to unplug completely: no internet, no phone. Just you and the blank page. There’s nothing like it.

I can hear the protests already, and I’ll admit that many of them are valid. To complete a task these days, we often need to access the internet for research, to access images and other resources to include in our project, or a whole range of other things.

But do we really need it all the time? Sometimes, but often not. If it’s feasible, consider using the internet for limited periods of time, to accomplish a particular task, and then switching it off again.

For example, for this article I needed to do some research online. So I started by searching for the articles and studies I needed, and opening them up in a whole lot of new tabs in my browser. Here’s a screenshot of the mess I was in (at the time you can see that I was looking up whether “multitasking” should be hyphenated).

Screenshot showing multiple tabs open at onceScreenshot showing multiple tabs open at onceScreenshot showing multiple tabs open at once

Multitasking at its finest. But after opening all these tabs, I disconnected from the internet, and read and made notes on what I’d found. To actually write this tutorial, I didn’t need to be online. In fact, being online would have resulted in more distractions, more temptation to click from page to page, following tangents and tangents of tangents, until I was completely off-track.

The key is to separate the research (one task) from the writing (another task). The first task requires the internet; the second does not. Questions did come up as I was writing, but I simply made a note and checked them later, when I was back online. While writing, I stayed focused on the task at hand.

Of course, whether this will work for you depends on the type of work you’re doing. Unplugging long-term isn’t feasible for many of us these days. But think about whether you could do without the internet, at least for short periods of time. If you’re going to do this, you may want to switch to old-school organisers and calendars as well, so that you have more information to hand without going online.

If you can’t unplug, consider at least taking smaller steps like using apps to block your favourite distracting websites, or going into full-screen focus mode on the program you’re working in to help you block out everything else.

6. Take Breaks

In addition to being bad at multitasking, the brain is also unable to concentrate for long stretches of time. That’s why, when you’re pushing yourself to work for hour after hour to meet an important deadline, you keep getting the urge to watch hilarious cat videos on YouTube. It’s just your brain telling you it needs a break.

So when you block out that time to work on important tasks, remember to schedule breaks. Having a limited time will help you stay distraction-free, and the break will help you recharge ready for the next block.

One piece of research suggests that the optimum balance of working and breaks is to work for 52 minutes and take a 17-minute break. Of course, you don’t have to stick to that precise timescale; find one that works for you. A popular system that follows a similar principle is the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work in blocks of 25 minutes called “pomodoros”, taking five-minute breaks in between. This tutorial on the Pomodoro Technique goes into more detail.

7. Keep Other Tasks Focused Too

If you follow the suggestions given so far, you should be able to complete your most important daily tasks in short, focused bursts of activity, without distraction. That’s a big step forward for most of us.

But of course, you do still need to check email, keep up with social media, and all those other things that tend to distract us. In fact, if you don’t take care of them, all those unanswered emails will likely call at you even more strongly, pulling you away from other activities.

So it’s best to deal with them, but in a concentrated, focused way. Instead of breaking away from other tasks to answer an email here and there, set aside half an hour or an hour at the end of the day to blitz your inbox. Instead of idly flicking across to Twitter when you should be writing a report, schedule short blocks of time—maybe one at lunchtime and another in the evening—to update all your profiles and interact with your friends and followers.

Even if you don’t do social media, there will always be little daily tasks that, while not your overall priority, still need to get done. The principle is the same: keep them contained. Get them done, but only after you’ve completed your three most important tasks for the day. You do need to pay the utility bill, but you don’t need to interrupt your creative work to do it. Schedule it for a block of time later in the day, and forget about it until that time comes.

Next Steps

In this tutorial, you’ve seen that multitasking is a truly ineffective way of working. Much better is to split your day into blocks of time when you focus on single tasks. You’ve seen that regular breaks are an important way of maintaining that focus, and that switching off notifications, ignoring email and staying offline for certain periods can also help.

Perfect focus all day long is an unattainable goal for most of us. But with the techniques outlined in this tutorial, you should be better equipped to keep distraction at bay and at least complete your most important tasks without getting the urge to multitask.

Do you have any other preferred techniques for avoiding multitasking? Let me know on Twitter.

Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2015. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.

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