Single-tasking: the power of focusing on one task at a time

We are all juggling multiple obligations, roles, and responsibilities across our personal and professional lives. Multitasking seems like it should be the perfect solution when faced with multiple demands and limited time. Doing two things at the same time is faster than doing them one after the other… Right?

I’m a freelance medical copywriter. When I sit down to work, I get email notifications, have multiple tabs open, my phone nearby, and other distractions including a never-ending personal to-do list. While I like to kid myself that quickly answering an email and then returning to writing an article is a great feat of multitasking, my output, as well as the scientific evidence, tells me otherwise.

In fact, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell defined multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one”. Trying to multitask can not only hurt our productivity, but also our ability to learn. Fortunately, there is an alternative way to boost your efficiency: single-tasking.

Single-Tasking versus Multitasking Illustration
Illustration by DALL·E

The dangers of multitasking

Despite being an established word in the English language, when multitasking was first coined in the 1960s it was not with human productivity in mind. Rather, its meaning was related to computers performing more than one task at once.

As humans, although it might seem that we’re performing multiple tasks at the same time, the reality is that we only work on one task at a time. The multitasking illusion is achieved by opening an email, saving a document and streaming an audiobook one after the other so quickly that it appears simultaneous. Performing multiple tasks in series, rather than parallel, is also how we attempt to multitask as humans.

As Canadian author Michael Harris puts it: “When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multi-switching”. Multitasking makes us feel busy, but rather than being productive, we are lowering our efficiency.

Researchers Kevin Madore and Anthony Wagner investigated what happens to the brain when trying to handle more than one task at a time. They found that “the human mind and brain lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously.”

That’s why multitasking leads to decrements in performance when compared to performing tasks one at a time. Furthermore, it is worrying that those who multitask often inaccurately consider their efforts to be effective, as studies have demonstrated that multitasking leads to an over-inflated belief in one’s own ability to do so. Not only are we bad at multitasking, but we can’t seem to be able to see it.

While micro-level multitasking, such as responding to an online work chat while producing a report, will lead to lost efficiency, it’s important to note that macro-level multitasking can be achieved when you are balancing several projects at once.

However, in most cases, research shows that single-tasking is the most efficient way of working, as it avoids switching costs and conserves energy that would be expended by mentally juggling multiple competing tasks.

Single-tasking boosts more than just productivity

To single-task, we must relearn how to focus our attention on one task, rather than becoming drawn into another project or social distraction.

In 2016, an analysis of 49 studies found that multitasking negatively impacted cognitive outcomes. For young adults in education, multitasking, such as studying and texting, was found to reduce educational achievement and increase the amount of time it took to complete homework.

Students who multitasked in class failed to offset the damage done to their final grades, even if they put in additional hours of study at home to try to make up for it. It is therefore difficult to combat the damage caused by multitasking. In contrast, single-tasking can help you meet your targets more efficiently.

By consciously blocking out distractions, you counteract the stop-start nature of task-switching and instead reach a flow state. This ensures you can focus solely on the current brief without interruption, leading to increased productivity in a shorter space of time. 

Focusing on one task can, surprisingly, boost creativity. Whereas multitasking creates a constant stream of distraction, the tedium of focusing on a single task gives your brain the space it needs to explore new paths that you might otherwise not have considered

By focusing on one workstream, inspiration and creativity can bloom because you are not trying to split your focus in multiple directions at once. By dedicating yourself to one task, you will complete tasks more effectively and therefore feel more confident about your capabilities at work, and less stressed about keeping up with deadlines or targets.

How to single-task

With studies demonstrating that multitasking drains your energy and diminishes your productivity, those of us trying to multitask are at risk of falling behind.

Failing to complete tasks, having to work overtime, or feeling exhausted by a never-ending to-do list will likely lead to stress or anxiety. Fortunately, there are three strategies which will help you implement a single-tasking approach to work:

  • Design a distraction-free environment. Both your digital and physical environment should be free of distractions to enable you to focus solely on one task. Turn off email notifications, and instead, only check your emails at when you start work, at lunchtime, and an hour before you finish. Put your phone in your bag or leave it in a different room to reduce the urge to check it. Close any tabs or browsers that are not relevant to your current task to avoid the temptation to get sucked into the latest sale or any breaking news.
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique involves working for 25 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break. During the 25 minutes of work, you must be completely focused on the task. Breaking your time down in this way offers certainty that you will be able to focus solely on one task for a relatively short amount of time, rather than setting a more overwhelming time target, such as a whole morning. Using a timer is beneficial for keeping you on track and ensuring you take breaks. For maximum productivity, be sure to return to work as soon as the break is over.
  • Take regular breaks. In addition to the 5 minute Pomodoro breaks, you need to regularly take meaningful breaks to fresh and recharge. Leave your screens behind and go for a walk at lunchtime or commit to reading a novel for thirty minutes. Focussed work requires energy, so you will need to make sure you factor in respite to reduce the risk of burnout.

Many of us think we can multitask, but an unfortunate risk of multitasking is that we develop an over-inflated perception of just how effectively we juggle multiple tasks. For micro-tasks, single-tasking is a far more effective way to complete projects, boost creativity, and even reduce stress levels.

As we have become accustomed to so-called multitasking, learning to focus on one thing takes time, but it is worth the effort. By creating an environment free from distractions, using techniques to boost your focus and incorporating regular breaks, you are likely to become more efficient and ultimately more successful.

Join 100,000 mindful makers!

Ness Labs is a weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

One email a week, no spam, ever. See our Privacy policy.