‘Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.’ ~Alexander Graham Bell
Many of us grew up in the age of multi-tasking, where you couldn’t call yourself productive if you weren’t a good multi-tasker. We learned to always have several balls in the air at once — that’s the productive worker, the effective executive.
Now we’re expected to do 10 things on the computer at once that we used to do on paper and on the phone, along with email, texting, social media, online news, blogs, personal messages and phone apps. Multi-tasking is no longer about being productive — it’s a way of living.
It’s not a sane way of living, however, and it’s not necessarily the most effective way of working either.
A few notes on why:
- Multi-tasking is less efficient, due to the need to switch gears for each new task, and the switch back again.
- Multi-tasking is more complicated, and thus more prone to stress and errors.
- Multi-tasking can be crazy, and in this already chaotic world, we need to reign in the terror and find a little oasis of sanity and calm.
- Our brains can really only handle one thing at a time, and so 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.
An Alternative: Single-Tasking
Imagine instead, a single-tasking life. Imagine waking and going for a run, as if running were all you do. Nothing else is on your mind but the run, and you do it to the very best of your abilities. Then you eat, enjoying every flavorful bite of your fresh breakfast of whole, unprocessed foods. You read a novel, as if nothing else in the world existed. You do your work, one task at a time, each task done with full focus and dedication. You spend time with loved ones, as if nothing else existed.
This is summed up very well by something Charles Dickens once wrote, “He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.” This is a life lived fully in the moment, with a dedication to doing the best you can in anything you do — whether that’s a work project or making green tea.
If you live your life this way, by this single principle, it will have tremendous effects:
- Your work will become more focused.
- You will become more effective at your work.
- You’ll become better at anything you do.
- Your time alone will be of better quality.
- Your time with your family will be much more meaningful.
- Your reading will have less distractions.
- You’ll lose yourself in anything you deem worthy enough of your time and attention.
How to Single-Task
It sounds nice, but how do you live a life like this? Is it as simple as saying you’re going to do it, or is it impossible? Somewhere in between, of course, and like anything worth doing, it takes practice.
Here’s what I’d recommend:
- Create a Distraction-Free Zone. A space where you can practice focus. More on this in the next section.
- Start consciously. When you start a new task, don’t just rush into it. Take a breath, think about what your intention is, and decide to focus on this task only for the next 2-5 minutes (or longer if you feel you can).
- Be aware of the urge to switch. You will inevitably want to switch to a new task, or check on something, or go to distractions. Watch the urge. Note it. But don’t act on it.
- Really pour yourself into the task. If you’re going to make tea, do it with complete focus, complete dedication. Put everything you have into that activity. If you’re going to have a conversation, really listen, really be present. If you’re going to make your bed, do it with complete attention and to the best of your abilities.
And practice. This isn’t something you’ll learn to do overnight. You can start right now, but you’re not likely to be good at it at first. Keep at it. Practice daily, throughout the day. Do nothing else, but practice.
Create one or two Distraction-Free Zones during your day, to practice single-tasking.
In these zones, you will do nothing but one task at a time. The rest of the day, you can be as distracted as you like. But for just 20 minutes, you’ll be without distraction.
- Set a time. Don’t pick “right now” … set a time that you’ll use each day whenever possible. Let’s say 9 a.m.
- Pick important tasks ahead of time. Pick 2-3 tasks to do during your next zone. Things you normally put off. Keep them small — you don’t have to “write an entire book” but just “write 10 minutes of my book”.
- Clear distractions. Turn off your phone, close your browser, close anything that might distract you. Just have you and the task in front of you.
- One task at a time. Stick with one task as long as you can. Notice but don’t act on the urge to switch away. Breathe. Practice.
Note: If there’s something you need to look up or do later, just jot it down on a piece of paper. You can do it later.
Between tasks, you can get up and stretch, get a glass of water, but nothing else to put off your task.
Keep a very short to-do list, clear distractions, do one thing at a time, until the list is finished. That’s single-tasking simplicity at its essence.