To sharpen your focus, increase your productivity, and make work-related tasks flow more efficiently, single-tasking might be the answer. Single-tasking, or monotasking, means breaking away from today’s constant inundation of information and directing your attention to one specific task at a time, rather than trying to be a superhero and doing everything at once. Digital distractions demand your attention at times, but with deadlines looming, they’re a distraction you can’t afford. It might be a challenge to slow your pace, but the benefits of single-tasking make the effort worth it.
The Myth of Multitasking
In the 1990s, “multitasking” became the hottest new buzzword. If you could do more than one task at a time, the thinking went, it was beneficial for companies. As a result, people began increasingly using this term on their resumes. But is it actually possible for a human being to constructively do more than one thing at a time?
According to the National Institutes for Health, the answer is no – not productively, anyway. In fact, it’s been shown that multitasking actually slows down production and creates backlogs instead of making you more efficient, and true multitasking might not even be possible. While the brain is capable of handling a few simple tasks at once, such as eating and listening to music, more complex tasks can’t be done simultaneously. Instead, the brain shifts between tasks, lowering your productivity and increasing the likelihood of mistakes on one or more of your projects. Many people who multitask don’t even realize how bad they are at juggling projects. One of the worst problems for multitaskers is that they end up training their brains not to focus, making it more difficult to concentrate on something.
Drawbacks of multitasking
You’re less efficient
When you multitask, you’re actually switching your focus from one task to another quickly. To switch from one task to another, you stop what you’re doing while your brain stores information about the current task in its temporary memory to free up space for the new task. You may not have noticed, but this constant switching of tasks costs time and slows you down. This is particularly true when the tasks are similar. For example, speaking on the phone and writing an email both involve communications. It is nearly impossible to do these things at the same time, because one task interferes with the other.
You make more mistakes
As you jump from one task to the next, you’re unable to reach the state of mind that allows you to critically think and creatively solve problems. As a common example, when you talk on the phone and drive at the same time, you’re distracted from the road. When you arrive at your destination, you may wonder how you got there because you don’t remember key landmarks, stop signs, or other significant portions of your drive.
You’re more stressed out
When you force your brain to switch between tasks constantly, you stress your brain and tire yourself quickly, leaving you mentally drained. Imagine that you’re working on an important task and a coworker keeps sending you messages asking about another project. Your brain tries to handle both attention-competing tasks by staying in high alert mode. When this happens, your stress level skyrockets through the roof, and your body releases more cortisol into your bloodstream, which suppresses your immune system and allows you to get sick easily.
How Can You Avoid Multitasking?
One way to focus on one thing at a time is to prioritize your tasks at the beginning of each day. By starting every day knowing what you need to do and when you need to do it, you can focus on one task until it’s completed before you begin the next. If you have a lot on your plate, you could consider delegating some of your tasks to other employees so you can focus on those most important to you. If you focus on one thing at a time, you’re able to see how much more you can accomplish. Try these three proven strategies to see what works best for you.
The Eisenhower Matrix
The Eisenhower matrix is a task organization matrix developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States. It consists of four different quadrants. The upper-left quadrant is reserved for tasks that are urgent and important. The lower-left quadrant is reserved for tasks that are urgent, but not important. The upper-right quadrant is for tasks that are important but not urgent. The bottom-right box is for tasks that are not important and not urgent.
Based on these categorizations, Eisenhower recommends the following actions:
- Urgent and important: Do these tasks first. Focus on them before moving on to other tasks.
- Urgent but not important: Delegate these tasks to other people.
- Important but not urgent: Schedule these tasks to be completed on a future date.
- Not important and not urgent: Don’t do these at all. Delete them from your to-do list.
Take a day to categorize all of your tasks using this system. Then, you can start working on the most critical items.
The Pareto Principle
This principle, the rule of 80/20, states that about 80% of output is due to 20% of input. It was created by Vilfredo Pareto, an economist from Italy. Sometimes the relationship can be higher, such as 99% of output due to just 1% of input. You can use this analysis to measure any business metric and use it to help you prioritize your tasks.
The Ivy Lee Method
The Ivy Lee method was developed by Ivy Lee for Charles M. Schwab and the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Lee was brought in by Schwab to increase the company’s productivity. Lee spent 15 minutes with each of the company’s top executives and described his method. Schwab was so impressed with the results that, three months later, he wrote Lee a cheque for what today would be worth about half a million dollars.
The method consists of five steps:
- At the end of each work day, write down the top six tasks that must be completed the next day – no more, no less.
- Prioritize these tasks by their true importance.
- The next day, focus on completing the first task before touching the second.
- Continue this pattern of focus.
- Put any unfinished tasks on tomorrow’s list.
Benefits of Single-Tasking
Single-tasking helps you regain your ability to focus and helps ensure the work you produce is error-free. You can relieve a lot of your stress when you make a conscious effort to single-task, and you might find that you’re more creative and energetic. The ability to single-task and ignore everything else also benefits your brain in long-term ways. But how exactly can you un-train your multitasking brain to thrive by single-tasking?
Training Your Brain to Single-Task
The first step in learning how to single-task is to break away from information overload. There are simple ways you can do this, such as:
- Limit your computer browser to one tab at a time
- Silence your phone
- Turn off notifications when you’re working
- Restrict yourself from checking email throughout the day, instead checking it just once or twice per day
- Use a social media blocker to keep yourself offline
To-do lists, planners, and calendars help you organize your day so you know in advance where your attention should be focused. Once you eliminate the distractions of multitasking, train your brain to focus on a single task for increasing periods of time. Start by setting a timer for 10 to 15 minutes and use that time to concentrate on a single task. Build up to 25- to 30-minute focus sessions, taking five-minute breaks between sessions to relax and recharge your mind. Attempting to focus for longer periods without a break can lead to burnout. Single-tasking frees you from the need to accomplish everything at once and helps you get more done each day.
Ready to stop multitasking and start prioritizing? QuickBooks can help you discover just how productive you really are. The QuickBooks Self-Employed app helps freelancers, contractors, and sole proprietors track manage your business on the go. Download the app.