Multitasking used to be a sought-after professional competency thought to be a valuable skill for the busy professional. Research tells us that single-tasking is actually more effective and can result in higher productivity and time efficiency.
I can envision a woman at work reading this blog while eating her lunch, checking her email, listening to a webinar and texting her daughter about carpool plans for soccer practice after school. In the reality of the 24/7 mindset, who has enough time to focus on one task at a time?
We understand the danger of texting while driving, yet we knowingly overload our brains with multiple tasks that lead us to a cluttered life and a growing list of unattainable daily demands that cause stress. Alas, there is hope for me, and the myriad of multitaskers that long for a simpler and more productive life. Breathe deeply and read on!
The Multitasking Myth
The human brain can only focus on one thing at a time. It is common for people to task switch, moving rapidly and ineffectively among them. Performance suffers and attention shifts back and forth, as reported by Dr. Eyal Ophir, a neuroscientist from Stanford University, an expert cited in Devora Zack's book on single-tasking.
The Simplicity of Single Tasking
Focusing on one thing until it's completed allows you to concentrate fully and often to complete the task at hand faster and more accurately than if you were juggling multiple projects. For example, try and schedule blocks of time when you respond to or compose email during your workday, instead of spending precious time throughout the entire day handling email. The scheduled time blocks will free you up to do other things and teach your audience (personal and professional) about your boundaries and response time.
In this quirky, off-beat, and charmingly useful video with Dr. James Hambin of The Atlantic, Dr. Hambin introduces the challenge of Tabless Thursday, where you keep only a single Internet tab open at a time on your computer. This single tab usage forces you to focus your energy and brainpower on one single task or idea at a time. I reluctantly tried this and was pleasantly surprised!
Control Your Environment
I used to be like a Pavlovian dog with a visceral response to the audio ping of a new email, a text or a meeting request on my Outlook calendar. Devora Zack, author of SingleTasking: Get More Things Done, One Thing at at a Time, explains in this video how easy it is to control your environment and eliminate, or at least minimize, the visual and audio stimuli that cause you to lose focus on multitasking opportunities.
Be More Mindful
Diane Sieg is a mindfulness practitioner, speaker and author who shared: "Stress reduction and mindfulness don't just make us happier and healthier, they're a proven competitive edge that affect your bottom line." Mindfulness reduces the cost of employee turnover and sick leave, increases performance and productivity and helps you feel energized more of the time, according to statistics by the iOpener Institute. "Mindfulness is a simple concept -- the practice of being aware of your experiences in the present moment." According to Sieg, a great way to practice mindfulness is singletasking.
Single Task to a healthier relationship with food
I love the concept of the slow food movement, where meals are prepared by hand as an artisanal culinary experience. Farm-to-table honors the sustainability of local agriculture with seasonal and newly-harvested ingredients, but when was the last time you really tasted your food? Have you ever eaten lunch at your desk or wolfed down something in-between meetings and didn't take the time to enjoy or even taste your food?
Honor your body and single task the next time you ingest food or drink. Experience eating with all five senses and make enjoying your food a single task. Chances are you will slow the eating process, become full faster and eat less in the long run. Single-tasking may just help you shed a few pounds without any extra work!
Less is More
As a self-described over-achiever, multitasking was my way to prove my value and was I ever wrong! It's not about working harder -- it's about working smarter and being busy does not equate with being important or valuable. Let go of the busy-ness of multitasking and allow yourself to focus on fewer things and do them extraordinarily well instead of doing many things in a mediocre fashion.
Reclaim Your Life
A friend with three teenage kids has a house rule that all digital devices are put in a drawer and shut off during family meal times. This digital detox allows the family to be fully present and experience the single task of eating together and enjoying each other's company. By setting boundaries you teach others how to treat you and take back the control over your time and how you choose to spend it.
Consider how you can begin to reclaim precious time by singletasking and staying more in the moment whether at work or with loved ones. Single tasking empowers better active listening, more authentic experiences, and heightened focus on one task at a time.
I'm a singletasking work-in-progress but even my initial baby steps have reduced my stress and helped me focus on what matters. Onwards!
Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" now in the second edition, and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Executive Director of Career & Professional Development at the Indiana University Alumni Association and contributes to AOL Jobs, CNN Money, and the British online magazine - The Rouse. She is hosting a new webisode series called Thrive! about career & life empowerment for women and hosts the international podcast series Your Working Life - check it out on iTunes. Follow her on Facebook,LinkedIn, and Twitter.