The Health Benefits of Single Tasking

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When it comes to checking things off our list, the first thing we consider is multi-tasking. For me, it goes something like this: “I will fold laundry, talk to my mom on the phone, and watch the most recent episode of my favorite show.” This plan typically results in three towels being folded, my mom and I going off on an hour-long tangent, and the show’s credits rolling after watching no more than 30 seconds of the TV program. The truth is, multi-tasking isn’t doing us any favors—it’s actually slowing us down.

So, to help you utilize your time and energy better, let’s chat and chew about reasons why you should start focusing on single tasking instead.

  • You’re not really multi-tasking. According to Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says. “It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.” When you switch back and forth between several tasks, your attention is spent on the act of switching gears, Winch says. You’re unable to “get in the zone”, so you end up wasting more time and productivity by not focusing on one thing at a time.
  • You’re not saving time. Multi-tasking has always been seen as a time saver. The reality is, it will likely take longer to finish two tasks that you jump back-and-forth between than it would to complete each one individually. Winch suggests doing things in batches to save the most time. “Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once,” he says. By separating out each project, you will be in the right mindset and can easily get into a groove to finish more quickly.
  • Multi-tasking leads to mistakes. The American Psychological Association shows that switching between activities can result in a 40% loss in productivity. Furthermore, tasks that require more critical thinking than others often generate errors. By constantly changing activities, we overload the brain and become less efficient at whatever it is we are working on.
  • It causes more stress. Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealthand the Dee Wyly Distinguished University Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas reports, “Chronic multi-taskers have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.” (More) Other research shows that the effects of stress linger even after the task is complete, which can cause “fractured thinking and lack of focus.”
  • Missing in action. Imagine walking down the street while talking on your cellphone and on the next block there’s a clown juggling while riding a unicycle. Despite the fact that you are aware of your surroundings, you brain doesn’t register what’s happening nearby. That’s inattentional blindness in a nutshell. 
  • Relationships are affected. I would be lying if I said I never picked up my phone to check an email that came through while having an important conversation. More than likely, that either promoted the person I was speaking with to check his or her phone, which ultimately shut the communication down, or, the person became frustrated or it added unnecessary tension. Plain and simple, if you’re having an important conversation with someone, or maybe you’re just catching up on how your day went, give the other person 10 minutes of your undivided attention.

The act of single tasking is easier said than done, especially because we all think we are great at multi-tasking. Challenge yourself to at least try and complete one project at a time and see if you notice a difference. Not sure where to start? Below are some tips to help get you started. 

  • One tab at a time. Similar to how you should only focus on one task at a time, having just one tab open in your Internet browser will help you really engage with whatever you’re reading or researching. Check out this video for more! 
  • Text messages, emails, social media—oh my. I get so annoyed by the constant dings, tweets, and rings my phone makes throughout the day… I almost always have it on silent. By setting aside a certain amount of time where you completely shut your phone off (and yourself out from the world), you can truly focus on other tasks – one at a time of course.   
  • De-clutter your life. Nothing affects my ability to focus than a cluttered workspace. While trying to finish a project or an email, if I have clothes on the floor or my desk is covered, I will immediately begin cleaning or organizing. Before I know it, an hour or two has passed. Keep yourself free from distraction by setting up a filing system for paperwork, putting clothes away rather than tossing them on the bed, or working in a different space until you have time to tidy up.
  • Make a single task to do list. Start with your top priority—something that likely has a hard deadline—and work your way down the list. Get specific and make sure to factor in those “bulk tasks.” We all know emails and phone calls will come in throughout the day, but if you have the ability to set aside time to answer them all at once, do it. More importantly, stick to the list. Don’t do laundry in the middle of making dinner, or read a book while watching TV. Instead of before, when only half a task would be completed, you’ll probably start to notice that things actually get done throughout the day. 

Concentrating on one task may seem impossible at times, but it’s worth at least trying. Start slow by designating one day a week to single tasking. Overtime, if you notice positive results, continue adding more days until you have mastered the practice. Have your own tips on how to become a pro at single tasking? Leave a comment below!             

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