Is Single-Tasking the New Black?
Updated: Apr 26
I’m sure we’ve all heard the terms multi-tasking and single tasking being thrown around. Being able to multi-task is sometimes worn as a badge of honour, but is it really all that?
To be able to make an informed decision about multi vs single-tasking, we need to know what they really are and when it’s best to use them.
Multi-tasking is exactly what it says on the can: Working on two or more tasks at the same time. It works best with tasks that don’t require a lot of brain power; like filing while listening to a podcast or listening to music while formatting a document.
Problems arise when you try to work on multiple high-concentration tasks that need your absolute attention, like problem-solving or deep reading. Our brains are just not equipped to handle two of these types of tasks at the same time and we end up losing focus and making mistakes.
In a 2001 study, participants were tasked with solving problems that required different degrees of focus. As the problems became more complex, those multi-tasking became less able to focus properly – it could slash as much as 40% of overall productivity.
On the other side of the productivity coin is single-tasking: working on one task at a time until it’s complete before moving onto the next.
Single-tasking is best when you have a high focus task that will take quite a bit of brain power to complete. For example, writing a blog post or completing online research.
It’s the idea of doing less to do more …
Our modern workplace makes single tasking almost impossible! High workload, competing priorities, emails and chat; the list goes on! But the benefits of single-tasking are that we don’t spend time chopping and changing from one task to the other and back again – therefore saving time, energy and stress levels … remember that 40%!
So, now we know what single tasking is, we can talk about how to do it.
How to single-task
First, keep in mind that in a world that’s designed to steal our focus and distract us, single-tasking might be a challenge at first. But you can train yourself to do it by:
Working in increments – set a timer [I like 45 minute increments]
Remove all distractions – silence your phone, close all unnecessary tabs on your laptop, close your email, tell people not to disturb you, go to a meeting room
Use a project management system [PMS] – get all your tasks into your PMS and work through them one by one
Take proper breaks – attention is a finite resource. Each time you finish a work increment [I like to call them work sprints] take a break. Step away from your desk, make a drink or do some stretching, have a snack or just relax.
Should You Ever Multitask?
After everything I’ve said above, you may think you know the answer … but, sometimes it’s ok to multi-task. If you combine a tedious task with something more engaging (like podcasts and cleaning), that can lead to better results. The trick is that only one should require your attention.
You might want to switch tasks if your current task is delayed. There’s no point wasting time if you can’t move forward. Once you’ve finished the second task, you can move back to the first.
With practice, you’ll become an expert at single tasking. And there are lots of benefits:
You’ll get so much more done
You’ll feel better because you know you’re putting 100% into the important task at hand
You’ll have more time to do other things
You’ll be so much more relaxed in your free time and you’ll come back to work fully recharged
Whether you prefer to multi-task or not, you’ll work much faster if you learn how to single task first.
So, there you have it ... We live in a fast-paced world and time is a very precious commodity. Why do you think there are so many productivity apps and hacks out there? We’re continually distracted – phones, emails, browser tabs, social media – so we end up multi-tasking even when we don’t mean to. We’re jumping from task to task, feeling overwhelmed, and wondering what we’ve achieved at the end of the day!
So, give single-tasking a go and see how much more time you have available in your day.
After decades working in mining, aviation and oil & gas, Marie founded Empress of Order, a virtual assistant service, in 2018 and quickly became fully booked. With a background in operations and safety, focussing on processes, systems and procedures, Marie now supports busy business owners and helps them bring order to their lives!
She’s certified by the VA Institute and was named in the Inside Small Business Top 50 Business Leaders in 2020.
Marie facilitates a coworking day each month in her hometown of Perth, where business owners get together to work and build connections. This year Marie expanded her empire with the purchase of The Digital Mums Directory, an online membership and directory for female digital experts in Australia, with two biz friends.
Marie lives in the beautiful Perth Hills with her husband Simon and fur-babies. She can’t function without her morning coffee and loves a glass of bubbles or a cocktail in the evening.