The Art of Single-Tasking

How often would you say you or someone you know has bragged about being a great multi-tasker? What about having been criticized for not being a great multi-tasker, or having criticized someone else for this? Perhaps, you or someone you know has gotten fired from a job for not multi-tasking well enough, or has gotten repeatedly overshadowed by that “do-it-all-and-do-it-fast” star employee…

In our world today, the choice to put our time, focus, and energy into one thing at a time has seemed to become a sign of weakness, laziness, or just plain stupidity. We get frustrated with those who can’t manage to call us on the phone while they’re driving, or can’t text us what they want for dinner simply because they’re in a business meeting. We get annoyed at our spouses who refuse to brush their teeth while in the shower (they could be saving time!) and the ones who won’t ask us about our day while their favorite show is on (especially now that technology allows us the option to hit pause any time we want!).

The excuses are pretty much gone for NOT multi-tasking and speed has become key.

But the problem with speed is that it really doesn’t get us any farther than we otherwise would be by planning and scheduling ourselves to live one moment at a time. Instead, it only causes us to hit the brakes harder when we run into issues. Just like that red traffic light we are determined to beat as we press down the gas pedal to ensure uninterrupted passage---- do you ever notice the other cars that do get caught at the light often still end up right next to you at the next red light anyway?

Going faster often means making mistakes and having to start over or redo tasks, which obviously defeats the entire purpose of multi-tasking. This can quickly take a multi-tasker from getting ahead all the way back to square one. Even for the greatest multi-tasker of all time, there is no changing the fact that he or she will never have more than two hands, two legs, and one brain. The constant effort to move beyond these limitations and take on more than can be held using any of these physical parts of ourselves is likely to overwhelm and cause us anxiety. What’s worse is that this overwhelm and anxiety is often likely to slow the multi-tasker down, producing feelings of inability and even failure. This, of course, then makes the multi-tasker irritable as feelings of achievement and success seem to slip farther and farther out of reach.

In many cases, multi-tasking can be considered an illusion of progress (and progress that we are often moving too quickly to even notice). Unfortunately, this reality hits us whenever we realize we still never seem to have enough time in the day for all of the things on our to-do lists and when our goals of having more down-time for ourselves/with our families never seem to happen. We wonder how it would be humanly possible to have moved any quicker (perhaps by not taking that extra 2 minutes to finish the bag of chips we grabbed from the vending machine for lunch while typing that work report and potentially slowing down typing speed?). With this it isn’t long before feelings of defeat and discouragement settle in.

While there certainly is a time and a place for multi-tasking in our lives, it shouldn’t be all the time and everywhere. Once this pattern gets started though, it is often difficult to shift according to circumstance (as would be the ideal). Instead, multi-tasking becomes so much of our norm (fueled by the idea that it is the more respected way to live) that we tend to just keep adding more and more to our daily lists, somehow expecting that this will still allow for our well-deserved moments of relief and relaxation at the end of the night. Meanwhile, the reality is that the speedy multi-tasker just gets stuck in this cycle of taking on more only to have more to do, creating an endless loop of unfinished business.

In considering all of this, it is single-tasking that begins to show up in a whole new light. Odd as it may seem, single-tasking is now the more advanced and unique skill to strive for as it allows for more realistic and quality achievement in a variety of circumstances. This skill requires the ability to not only identify daily tasks in need of doing, but also to set “start and stop” times for these tasks over the course of a day.

As I often explain to my clients, the art of single-tasking begins with a daily schedule that pairs each task on our to-do lists with an actual time-frame of when to either complete that task, or at least chip away at it. This is much different than those never-ending to-do lists that we create with our “I’ll get to it eventually” mindsets. Much like a work schedule, it is important that we carve out specific moments in the rest of the day to ensure more balanced productivity. For example, scheduling exercise from 8am-9am, vacuuming from 11am-12pm, Netflix-time from 8pm-9pm, etc., makes it so that vacuuming never has to cross our minds during our exercise and that we never have to feel guilty about not working out during our down-time. Can you imagine a world with guilt-free down-time?

It is the same for scheduling a set time-frame to pay bills (4pm-4:30pm), to go grocery shopping (2pm-3:30pm), or even to get our desired amount of sleep at night (11pm-7am). Sticking to set time-frames helps to keep us on track with all that needs to be balanced in our days and disarms our tendencies to spend too much time on one task and allow it to bleed into the time we need for all the others (you know, like binge-watching Netflix for 3 hours). Creating designated time for the majority of our tasks allows us so much more control and the opportunity to put more of our focus and energy into each of them individually (rather than all of them merging into a disorganized and inefficient blur).

Though it is not always possible to ensure that our days will run as planned (even with the most organized of schedules) it is still worthwhile to enjoy the art of single-tasking whenever possible. It is important that we no longer allow life’s moments to get away from us as we rush through them half-hearted and half-minded in a determined-fluster to “get it all done.” Instead, we deserve to take our toothpaste-free showers, drive our safer phone-less commutes, watch our favorite uninterrupted TV show, get ahead in our text-free business meetings, and talk to our loved ones about our day for longer than the TV commercial break. With the improved time-management of single-tasking, there really is time that can be made for it all (INCLUDING time for our rest and enjoyment)...

Now this would be the kind of thing to really brag about.