Slow Down and Single-Task

Do you have (or have you had) a job that requires juggling two or three tasks at a time while continuing to be available to bosses or clients?  Or maybe you meet the needs of two or three young children while managing household tasks and honoring volunteer commitments.

It can be crazy.  Feeling rushed (and maybe a little overwhelmed), you repeatedly lose focus and have to backtrack, trying to remember where you left off.  You can't give your attention to one thing at a time, so everything takes longer, and any minor holdup can become a major meltdown.

Constant distraction is a way of life.

Before you know it, the workday is over, but you feel like you didn't do all you wanted, or you forgot something important.  You get in the car and start switching your attention between driving, making phone calls, and trying to get through that audio book everyone's talking about.

You're in a hurry, and mentally review your to-do list:  

  • pick up your child at school
  • get her to dance class
  • run to the post office and the grocery store
  • pick your daughter up again
  • drive home fast to let the dog out before he has an accident you'll have to clean up
  • either cook something for dinner or decide which takeout food everyone wants
  • answer some texts and emails
  • get your kid into bed
  • run over logistics with your spouse
  • fall onto the couch with your cell phone and the TV remote  

Maybe you can relax before you fall asleep.

I used to multi-task my way through each day, and prided myself on how productive I was.  I'd read a book while doing a load of laundry, homeschool my kids while paying bills and making phone calls, or cook dinner while watching the evening news.

Except...  I'd forget to move the clothes from the washer to the dryer, so they sat overnight and started to smell funky.  Or I'd forget to note one of the checks in my register or get impatient because my child needed more help than I had planned to give.  Or I'd get distracted by something on TV and the onions I was browning would burn.

We're all given the same 24 hours.  

But we're told we can accomplish more if we just learn to multi-task more efficiently.  If we just find the right organizing system or life hack, we'll be able to do it all, all at once.

The reality is that if our attention is divided, we actually accomplish less while feeling more frazzled.

When you decide to multi-task, you're inviting interruption and distraction.  What we call multi-tasking is really our brains frantically switching back and forth between jobs.  

Many people think they're skilled at multi-tasking, but the brain doesn't actually work that way.  Our brains have to choose which information to process.  For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active, and vice versa.  When you talk on the phone to your mother and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what Mom is saying.

Researchers at Stanford University found that multi-tasking is less productive than doing one thing at a time.  Multi-tasking takes more energy, so even simple tasks take longer than they should.  People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of information experience cognitive gaps, and have difficulty

  • paying attention
  • organizing their thoughts
  • filtering out irrelevancies
  • recalling important information
  • switching smoothly from one task to another

So no, you can't have a real conversation while scrolling through social media.

A study at the University of London showed that multi-taskers experience IQ score declines similar to someone who has smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.  Their scores resembled those of an eight-year-old child.

Even more disturbing, multi-tasking may cause or indicate brain damage.  Research completed at the University of Sussex found that high multi-taskers (in this case, people who spend a lot of time texting while watching TV or answering email while talking on the phone) had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy and emotional control.

Tell me how people with less empathy and emotional control make good co-workers, marriage partners, parents, or neighbors!

Your own experience of multi-tasking may have shown that it makes you more frustrated and forgetful, anxious or irritable.  Learning to single-task is a kindness to yourself and everyone around you.

5 ways to find focus and clarity

1.  Decide to single-task.

Bouncing between tasks may seem to relieve boredom, but it drains our cognitive abilities.  Stick with one item until completion if you can.  If attention starts to wane, you can switch to a new task, but take a moment to leave yourself a note about where you were with the first one.  Then give the new task your full attention, again for as long as you can.  

You could try setting a timer, say for 25 minutes, and then allow yourself a 5 minute break.  This can work very well for children doing homework.  While they focus on one task (with cell phone off and irrelevant windows closed on their computer), they know that a break is coming when they can check their texts or update a social media page.

As you practice single-tasking, you'll stretch your attention span, develop sharper focus, and access greater creativity.

2.  Identify your elephants.

Most people have a long to-do list and choose to do the easiest things first so they can have the satisfaction of crossing something off the list.  The difficult tasks are pushed later to when the brain is already tired.

Cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Chapman suggests focusing on your two "elephants" when writing your to-do list.  These are the most important things you need to accomplish on that day, the ones to which you want to give your best efforts and attention.  If time allows, you can move on to other tasks.

3.  Cut the buzz.

Many of us live and work with the constant background noise of radio, TV, or traffic.  Especially when the sounds are those of people talking, such as with news, ads, or co-workers, there's a constant drag on our brain's ability to focus.  Question your need for constant stimulation, and consider removing these noises if you can, since research shows that most people are more productive when working in silence.  If you feel you must have accompaniment, choose purely instrumental music.

4.  Close your door.

In the "old days," people did this when they needed to concentrate.  You need to figuratively close your door on electronic distractions if you want to be productive and creative.  You need to restrain your response to texts or emails if you want to nurture relationships.  You need to be immersed in your task to do your best work.  

So remove text alerts from your phone, and put it in your bag or another room.  Close browser tabs and remove email alerts from your computer.  Check texts, voice mail, and email only at specific times during the day.

5.  Learn to say no.

In a perfect world, "focus on one thing at a time" sounds ideal.  But sometimes it seems impossible.

Establish boundaries between work and leisure, home chores and relationship time.  This will depend on your profession and your other responsibilities, but as much as possible keep these areas distinct.  If it's work time and your child needs you, ask for five minutes to finish your task (or at least come to a stopping point).  Then keep your promise and give your full attention to your child.  That way you're still limiting your focus to what's right in front of you, which lets you be far more effective.

Plan ahead as much as possible.  Every Sunday, make a list or a schedule.  If you know you have a project due at work or your kid has a piano recital or an orthodontist appointment, block out ample time so you can be fully present for all of it.  

If your schedule has no white space or zero "me" time, consider which commitments are unnecessary, and let them go.  You may have to save volunteering at the animal shelter for when your kids are older, or ask another family member to pitch in with laundry or grocery shopping.

Free yourself from the illogic of the fear of missing out.  You are finite, your time and energy are finite – you can't do everything.  You're going to miss some things.  So is everyone else.  It's okay!

Having admitted that, set limits.  Let your child choose one after-school activity, not something for every day.  Limit the number of meetings or social activities you accept.  Set a specific limit on when you'll have an outside obligation – perhaps two evenings per week.  Then relax about everything you've chosen not to do.

Related article:  How to Say No

It's ironic that we get more done when we slow down.

When we try to multi-task, we're less productive, more stressed, and ultimately less happy.  With focus, we can do our very best.

Updated February 2023


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