When you’ve got a full schedule, multitasking looks like a good way to free up time. Almost everybody does it. Kids eat while watching TV or playing on an iPad. Adults simultaneously text and surf the internet. Walk down any city street, and you’ll see people attempting to walk and use their smartphones at the same time.
Multitasking has become the norm. We even pride ourselves on how many things we can do at once. The more tasks we can juggle, the more valuable we feel we are to our companies, families, and friends. This may be flawed logic, however.
When you think back on your experiences with multitasking, did you really accomplish more? Our obsession with multitasking confirms our love of productivity, but the quality of our work may tell a different story.
Multitasking is a habit, not an art form
Nothing beats wrapping up a day of work with a cleared checklist. It feels good to accomplish so much at once. Multi-tasking has become a habit for most of us. It’s expected of us, and we don’t think twice about tackling several projects at once.
Habits are made of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue prompts us to do something, the routine is the behavior acted out, and the reward is the payoff that we get from the routine. Habits are hard to break because when you successfully complete your routine, your brain releases a feel-good neurotransmitter called dopamine.
According to some studies, our brains release lots of dopamine when we’re multitasking. Your brain rewards you more when you multitask because you are fulfilling more routines at the same time. All that dopamine–and the feelings of satisfaction that come along with it–trick you into thinking you’re great at multitasking. This is why the habit is so hard to break.
More isn’t necessarily better
The “more is better” mentality is a myth in need of busting. Research has proven that multi-tasking isn’t good for us, and we aren’t as good at it as we think. Your brain is simply not built to focus on multiple things at the same time.
When you’re faced with doing two things at once, it’s not possible for you to focus completely on both items. Instead, your brain rapidly switches between the two tasks, which creates the illusion that you’re 100% invested in two activities at the same time.
When your mind has to juggle, it can’t be as effective as when you give your undivided attention. It takes longer to do things because you’re constantly interrupting yourself. You’ll make more errors because every time your brain switches tasks you have to refocus. You’ll also feel more stressed as you flip between jobs.
Switching back and forth affects your memory and the quality of your work. Sure, more items are completed at the end of a day of multitasking, but have you had the chance to think about them with sufficient depth?
I’m sorry to break it to you, but if you want to do your best work, it’s time to break the multi-tasking habit and focus on doing one thing at a time.
Monotasking gets better results
It may sound counter-intuitive to switch from doing several things at the same time to limiting yourself to one task. Monotasking, or doing only one thing, is better for us, and it improves work outputs.
We have to retrain our brains to make single-tasking a habit. By devoting your full attention to one task, you can maintain focus for longer, work with more depth, and produce higher-quality work.
Research shows that when you make a conscious effort to refocus a wandering mind, you increase your ability to control your attention. Just like you can develop muscle memory to make some jobs seem second nature to you, you can harness the power that your prefrontal cortex has over your limbic system. Your focus and memory improves, and you have better control over your mind.
Easy tips to build your monotasking muscle
- Open one tab at a time. How often do you have 15-20 items open on your computer screen at once? Limit yourself to having one tab open. This keeps you from being tempted to flip between tabs and lose concentration.
- Start small. Making drastic changes to your lifestyle can leave you feeling frustrated. Take small steps to make mindfulness a natural part of your day. At mealtimes, for example, clear away all other distractions. When you’re in a meeting, turn your phone off and put it away. These minor changes add up to days filled with more focus.
- Set your priorities. You might have a mile-long list of things that need your attention, but you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish. Think about what is most important, and when you work best so that you can still be productive without sacrificing quality.
- Curb your excesses. Most of us have too much stuff cluttering our lives. Think about what you need to complete the task in front of you, and put everything else away. Resist the urge to over-commit by saying “yes” to too many things and having all your projects out at once. When you are working on something, everything else should be put aside.
- Let people know what you’re doing. If your colleagues are used to you dropping everything to put out the latest fire, they may be shocked to find that you are prioritizing your schedule in a new way. They’ll be more likely to respect and support your efforts if they know what you’re trying to do.
All these tips help you rein in your wandering mind. Each time you are able to stop distraction and refocus, you build your attention muscle. The more control you have over paying attention, the less you’ll be distracted. Eventually, focus will become your new habit.
Single tasking is the next big thing
It’s time to ditch the multitasking myth we’ve been sold for years. We humans aren’t as good at multitasking as we think. This habit robs us of our focus and the opportunity to do profound work.
If the idea of totally changing your workflow seems overwhelming, try a few of the tips in this article to get started. After you feel what it’s like to devote your energy to one thing at a time, you’ll be able to make monotasking a habit.
|||^||Charles Duhigg: How habits work|
|||^||Big Think: Why Monotasking Is the New Multitasking, According to Science|
|||^||Psychology Today: The Myth of Multitasking|
|||^||Live Science: Why Humans Are Bad at Multitasking|
|||^||Sandglaz: The power of single task focus and how to achieve it|
|||^||Lifehacker: A Case for Singletasking: The One-Task-At-a-Time Method|