I used to pride myself on my ability to multi-task and because I was working on so many different tasks at the same time, I naturally assumed that I was also incredibly productive.
It was at a low point of complete exhaustion and overwhelming stress, that I began searching for stress management strategies and came across mindfulness. Desperate to bring some calm into my busy life, I fully immersed myself in the practice of mindfulness and dropped the multi-tasking and adopted the habit of single-tasking, focusing on one activity at a time.
As expected, mindfulness did reduce my stress. However, I did not anticipate mindfulness would vastly improve my productivity. It surprised me that the mindful practice of being fully engaged while doing one thing at a time made me far more productive, rather than my usual method of multi-tasking.
By adopting single-tasking as my way of working I found I was less tired at the end of the day, I made less mistakes and actually completed tasks faster.
There are two kinds of multi-tasking. One is simple multi-tasking, the other is complex multi-tasking. Going for a stroll and having a conversation with someone is an example of simple multi-tasking and it is easy for people to do these simple activities simultaneously. Complex multi-tasking involves trying to do multiple complex things at the same time, such as responding to an email while talking on the phone.
Complex multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain is not designed to do more than one complex thing at a time and while you may think you are multi-tasking, what is really happening is that you are rapidly shifting your attention from one task to another.
Quickly switching your attention back and forth between tasks overloads and exhausts the brain and raises mental stress and fatigue. In addition, task switching reduces your focus and increases the likelihood of making errors and forgetting things, this is because with task switching there are small attention gaps.
If you are a multi-tasker who wants to try single-tasking and learn to be fully immersed and focus on one activity at a time, here’s how:
1. Plan and prioritize
Give some thought about what is most important and what should get your attention first. For those seemingly large and overwhelming tasks, break them down into manageable chunks and work on them one at a time. Your number one priority is the only task you will focus on for the given moment, you will get to the other priorities in due course. Scheduling your day in order of priority helps to make your day a productive one.
2. Remove distractions
To focus deeply without distraction, eliminate all the things that could potentially distract you from the task at hand. Silence your phone, shut down email, social media, internet browsers and remove anything else that is likely to draw your attention away from what you are meant to be doing. You cannot single-task and be fully focused and completely engaged when you are surrounded by distractions.
3. Block out time
Block out time in your day to concentrate on specific tasks to ensure you stay immersed with the task you are working on. Try setting aside 90 minutes to work on important tasks that requires your full attention, longer than 90 minutes your focus is likely to diminish. In addition, set specific times throughout the day to check emails, phone calls and social media rather than handling them as they come in.
4. One thing at a time
Commit to working on one activity at a time. Be conscious and aware of what you are doing, stay focused and fully engaged and give the task all you’ve got. Do not think about future tasks, you will get to them when you have completed the current one. You don’t have to complete the entire task all at once, just stick with it for the period of time you allocated to it.
5. Mindful attention switching
It is inevitable, even with the best intentions, that distractions will come up. For example, a very important phone call may come through while you are writing an email. In these instances, you can practice mindfully attention switching. Leave your email for the moment to fully concentrate on the phone call, when the call is done bring your full awareness back to the email. It may appear you are multi-tasking but in fact you are still doing one thing at a time by mindfully switching your attention between the tasks.
Multi-tasking can be a difficult habit to break. Single-tasking will take some practice and for it to become a habit, but once mastered you will notice how much more relaxed, focused and productive you are.
Image Courtesy: Andreas Klassen (Unsplash)