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“He did each single thing as if he did nothing else”
Last spring, I was the absolute Queen of Multi-tasking. I was always doing two, maybe even three or four things at once. I was working from home, still getting our new home in order, cooking, cleaning, and pursuing several hobbies. And I wasn’t doing any of it particularly well. Why not?
Well, I had a lot on my to-do list each day. (More about that to-do list problem here.) So each morning, I would write my very detailed list for the day. Then set a timer, tackle the first chore for 15 minutes (Oh wait, let me answer that work email real quick, it’ll only take a second), move on to the next for 15 minutes (Was that the dishwasher buzzing? I can empty that while I read this.), then, the next, until I ended up back at the top of the list to start the whole cycle over. (Seriously, I thought this was a good idea. It wasn’t.)
By the end of each day, I was scattered, exhausted, overwhelmed, rushed, tired of room-temperature coffee, and positive that it would work out better tomorrow. It didn’t. After almost 2 months of this, I decided I had to find a better way.
Why did I think this would work? Easy. Probably just like most of you reading this, I had been told my entire life that multi-tasking is Productive! And Efficient! You can get more done in less time if you do several things at once! And women are supposed to be particularly good at multi-tasking, right?
Spoiler alert – It’s. Not. True.
In fact, the idea of multi-tasking is so ingrained, that we don’t even always realize we’re doing it. How many times have you found yourself mindlessly multi-tasking? Checking your phone while you eat, brushing your teeth while hanging up a bath towel, reading email while you tie your shoes.
Why Multi-tasking doesn’t work:
It sounds like such a good concept. Why do one thing at a time, when you can do TWO or THREE things in the same amount of time? That sounds SO efficient! Why doesn’t it ever work out that way, though?
Because multi-tasking doesn’t allow our brains to focus on any one thing. Our attention is divided, so instead of actually focusing on several tasks at once, we’re rapidly switching between them. Which means that when we switch back and forth, we’re actually losing time, because we have to back up and remember where we left off on the previous task.
It’s not more productive, it’s actually taking longer to finish any one thing.
What is single tasking and how to do it:
So what’s the opposite of multi-tasking? Single-tasking. Literally doing one thing at a time.
Start a task. Focus on it. Finish it (or reach a stopping place). THEN do another task. Give what you’re doing your undivided attention and dedicated time.
Sounds simple, right? It is. But it’s not always easy, especially if multi-tasking is a long-standing habit.
But it IS doable. And effective!
Here are 5 tips I’ve learned along the way:
I made the realization a while back that I was not prioritizing. I was getting all the small meaningless tasks done each day, but not the important ones.
I have 6 daily chores – pickup the daily clutter, unload & reload the dishwasher, wipe down the countertops, sweep the wood floors, clean the litterbox, and start some laundry. I would religiously do these things first, before anything else. But by the time that laundry was done, it was past lunchtime and half my day was already gone! I only had a few hours left until dinner, so I felt rushed the rest of the afternoon, trying to fit the actual important things into my day. If my husband got off work and came home early, it would throw me into a panic, because my work day was over and I didn’t get the really important things done!
Instead, now I prioritize. I take the 3 most important tasks and DO THEM FIRST, focusing on each until it’s complete. The daily chores? They still get done, most days, but they are no longer the highest priority (and biggest time drain).
Ask yourself – what takes priority and what can wait?
Write things down
Tell me if you can relate to this: You’re in the middle of a project or task, working away, when all of a sudden you remember something else that needs to be done. So you jump up to tackle that real quick, before you forget about it. Of course, it takes longer than you expect, and then you think of something else you’ve been meaning to do. At the end of the day, you realize you’ve been running around like a crazy person and nothing actually got finished!
I’ve been there. And, honestly, some days I still AM there. But one thing has helped a lot – writing things down instead of doing them when they pop into my head!
My best tools for this have been Trello and a notes app on my phone. Since I usually have my phone nearby, when I’m in the middle of something and I remember something that needs my attention, I add it to my Trello board and get back to the task at hand. If it’s something that needs to be purchased, I add it to the shopping list in my notes app. No more stopping to give a new task my full attention!
Be aware of the task you’re doing
I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a slight tendency to be task-oriented. I want to get whatever I’m doing DONE, so I can mark it off the list. The more things that get marked off, the better, right?
Not if you’re not doing a good job at any of them. Focus more on the task you’re doing and less on the next task that’s calling for your attention. It will save you time and effort if you do a good job the first time, instead of rushing through and realizing you need to redo it later.
Don’t look back and say “I checked it off the list, but I didn’t do a very good job.”
Accept that there will be distractions
No matter how hard you try to single task and focus on what’s important, there will always be distractions and off days. That’s life. And it’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about. Try to limit what you can (Put that phone on Do Not Disturb. I promise, the world won’t end if you’re unreachable for 30 minutes now and then!)
Try to limit the distractions you can and accept the ones you can’t control. Don’t stress over it!
It takes practice
On a similar note, don’t expect that you will be able to go from Multi-tasking Maven to Single-tasking Success overnight. If these are long-standing habits, it will take practice!
Be aware of times when you find yourself mindlessly multi-tasking. Keep track of them and decide how you can change those moments in the future.
Progress is the goal when you’re creating a new life habit, so aim for that and keep doing just a little better each day.
How it’s working for me:
Since I’ve started making a concerted effort to limit my multi-tasking ways, I have definitely reduced my daily stress levels. I’m not starting as many projects each, but I am completing SO many more! But I am I still find myself mindlessly multi-tasking occasionally, but, hey, I’m a work in progress too.