Single Tasking + Why It Will Benefit You

December 17 2017 – Joanne Stewart

As a freelancer, I quickly learned to become a jack-of-all-trades. If I didn't know how to do something, I'd figure it out - which soon made me part-time videographer, photographer, marketer, + accountant. But it wasn't long before I realized I was trying to do too many entirely different things, all at once.

Scrolling through my Pinterest one day, I stumbled upon a new concept: single tasking. I know what you're thinking. You? Single tasking? The person famously known for having 23 tabs open on her browser window at once?

It's a crazy thought.

But it was this exact list of 13 Reminders for Single Taskingby Jo Chunyan that challenged me to step back for a moment, and refocus on what I needed + wanted be doing. (Spoiler alert: I still have wayyy too many tabs open for my own good - but we're making progress).

Here's what I didn't know:

There's about 2% of the population that are proficient at multitasking, and ironically, these people are the least likely to actually multitask. Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers—those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance—were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time.

(Yet we all continue to consider ourselves part of that 2% of the population, in an attempt to justify the way that we work, even if it's harming our productivity).

"Every time you switch your focus from one thing to another, there’s something called a switch-cost. [A]lthough switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.”
Dr. Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Yes, you read that right. 40% of your productivity could be lacking if you're trying to focus on too many things at once. That's 16 hours every single week. What most wouldn't give to have an extra sixteen hours to complete their work (or spend on things they're even more passionate about).

According to the American Psychological Association's overview of multitasking research, there are three types of multitasking:

  1. Performing two tasks simultaneously. This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a webinar.

  2. Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We’ve all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking, and often the hardest to avoid.

  3. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work efficiently.

So what does this mean?

"Our brains can really only handle one thing at a time, and we get so used to switching between one thing and another with our brains that we program them to have a short attention span. This is why it’s so hard to learn to focus on one thing at a time again."
Leo Babauta, author of Focus: A simplicity Manifesto in the Age of Distraction.

Single Tasking


And I get it. You have a million and one things to do. It's impossible to slow down.

But hear me out. If you can reprogram your brain to work with a greater focus, you can complete one task at a time, at a higher performance level and ultimately more efficiently.

Obviously, this is no small change - but it's most definitely worth an attempt.

I'm still learning, but here are my eight favourite ways off of Jo Chunyan's list to spend my time more profitably.

  • Eat breakfast without reading a book / newspaper / going online / checking your phone
  • When you drive or take public transport - simply sit and observe. You don't always need to be distracted by a book or by music.
  • Listen to an album all the way through without doing something else.
  • Connect with the people you speak to - don't think about what you need to say next, just listen and react to what needs to come through.
  • Carry around a notebook and write things down should you feel like you will get distracted.
  • Switch off your phone for a day on the weekend and detox from technology
  • Allocate one day of the week to cleaning, rather than finding something new to clean (and distract yourself with) every day.
  • Have only one browser window open at a time when you are on the internet.

Note the last point - like I said, still learning ;)

For Jo's full blog post, click here:

It's an entire mindset shift to fully engage in this idea of single-tasking, but so worth it to regain all the time + energy we put into switching simultaneously between tasks.

Xx, Brooklyn



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