Single-Tasking’s Simplicity Beats Multi-Tasking’s Complexity

The ability to efficiently multi-task has been the holy grail for many overworked employees.  The logic is that they can double their productivity (not just enhance it!) if only they can learn how to do two (or more!) tasks at the same time!  

Organizational leaders encourage this behavior by believing that multi-tasking will save time, save money, and increase the bottom line.  After all, computers can multi-task – so why shouldn’t employees (especially if they’re afraid that their jobs could be lost due to technology)? 

But we humans are literally wired differently than computers. 

During the COVID pandemic, remote workers are trying to simultaneously multi-task their work and home lives.  As we try to meet the professional demands of working from home, we are also trying to “fit in” all the personal, parental, and household responsibilities at the same time. 

These two domains – work life versus personal life – are no longer compartmentalized. 

Some new remote works didn’t appear to have a problem with multi-tasking in the pre-pandemic workplace.  But many of us are challenged by the scope of responsibilities that seem to fall squarely on our shoulders.  So even though we’re desperately attempting to multi-task in order to keep up with these demands, we’re finding that we are actually falling far behind. 

The more we multi-task, the more difficulty we have remembering all the stuff that needs to be done.  We start missing issues that we otherwise would never have missed.  We’re making more mistakes – even on the tasks that we previously could “do in our sleep.”  And we’re actually taking a lot longer to get anything done. 

The question is:  why?  Is it something wrong with us – or is there something wrong with this whole idea of multi-tasking? 

What Is Multi-Tasking? 

There are multiple forms of multi-tasking – in fact, some are even overlooked by workers because they represent “business as usual” in many organizations.  Here’s the multi-faceted definition of multi-tasking: 

Multi-tasking is performing two tasks at the same time OR switching from one task to another OR performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. 

Let’s look at each one of these individually. 

  1. Multi-tasking by performing two tasks simultaneously.  They may be very different tasks (like writing a blog post while doing laundry).  Or they might be doing two very similar tasks in terms of cognitive ability (talking with a client while inputting data).  In both situations, the human brain has trouble effectively mentally juggling what needs to be done and when or for which task.  The result is a profound slowing down and deterioration of your performance for both tasks. 

    In some situations, such multi-tasking can be especially dangerous.  It’s no wonder that texting while driving – two activities that are second nature to many people – has led to numerous collisions, resulting in laws that prohibit this practice. 
  2. Multi-tasking by simply switching from one task to another.  There have been numerous studies that explored changes in the brain when it is triggered by the “simple” act of shifting from one task to another.  In today’s rapid (if not frantic) workplace, this demand is the status quo for many employees. 

    In the workplace, you might be in the middle of analyzing next year’s budget – but are then pulled away to answer an urgent question by one of your subordinates.  Were you fully present when answering your colleague’s question?  How long did it take you to get back into the flow of budget analysis? 

    Some studies suggest that the more complex the tasks, the greater the amount of time lost in this “simple” switching of focus from one to the other.  The time loss is even greater if the competing tasks are unfamiliar.  Think again if you believe that this time drain is eliminated if you are very familiar with both tasks.  This the time loss might not be as significant, it still exists. 
  3. Multi-tasking by changing tasks in rapid succession.  What if you went back to analyzing next year’s budget, but were again pulled away to clarify an issue for an important client…and then interrupted by another coworker’s question…and then finally got back to the budget?  Did you find that you needed to figure out where you left off or even redo some of what you previously had done? 

    This is characteristic of many workers’ typical work day.  During the pandemic, workers are also getting interruptions from children, spouses, or other family members that are totally unrelated to the project they’re attempting to complete for work. 

    Such time losses associated with task switching are cumulative.  In fact, this repeated transitioning between diverse tasks causes mental blocks that can lead to a 40% reduction in productivity. 

So how are we supposed to get everything done that is supposed to get done when we’re faced with all these challenges and interruptions?! 

5 Tips to Move From Multi-Tasking to Single-Tasking

  1. Identify the interrupting triggers that cause you to switch tasks.  Email anyone?  How about text messages?  Too many disruptive phone calls?  All of these distract you from staying on task.  For example, in my current research on women and burnout, some of my participants had intense visceral reactions each time their phones rang after office hours:  the sound was a constant reminder that there was more to and that it needed to be done now! 

    To cope, they notified their colleagues that their phones would be turned off at a certain time each night – and to only reach out using another telecommunications device is the request was urgent; if not, then send an email that can be addressed the next day.  Another idea is to change your ringer in order to prevent intense negative reactions to the ringing phone. 
  2. Design and implement boundaries that prevent those triggers from occurring.  I know that you might argue that you’re at the mercy of your boss’s needs…or your team mates’ needs…or your clients’ needs.  How can you set boundaries when everyone needs you and everything is urgent?  While it might be challenging at first, you can begin by simply saying “no.”  Realize that not everything is urgent – so don’t fall prey to someone else’s “tempest in a teapot.”  Try to set a standard time in which you will return client calls or respond to your team mates’ questions.  Even have the courage to explain to your boss that by blocking off sacrosanct periods of time to work on critical projects, you will be better able to complete them on time, in compliance with the expected performance standards, and possibly even under budget. 

    BTW:  If a true emergency does arise, then by all means stop what you’re doing and switch to dealing with the task at hand.  (If you’re working from home, it’s probably best if you log out of a Zoom meeting because your child just flooded the bathroom when taking a bath!)  Another idea is to commit yourself to focusing on any given task for 20 minutes.  This will allow you to better focus and prevent repetitive task switching.  It also reinforces your ability to set boundaries as a defense against recurrent distractions.  In fact, learning how to create and adhere to healthy boundaries is a critical tool to prevent and recover from burnout. 
  3. Heed this if you absolutely must do two things at once.  Make sure that the tasks do not require the same level or intensity of cognitive functioning and decision-making.  Even a split second “mind freeze” between tasks can be dangerous if it occurs when you’re driving a vehicle or operating machinery. 

    Quite honestly if you’re working from home, completing work-related tasks while doing the laundry probably won’t cause too much distress unless you’re victim to the washing machine’s buzzer and believe that you must immediately stop what you’re doing and transfer the clothes into the dryer!  On the other hand, it’s been found that setting time limits to complete tasks can be an effective way to laser focus your attention –  remember the all-nighters spent studying for a final exam?  You have a set amount of time, so you focus exclusively on that one task.  In other words, single-tasking.  Remember your washing machine’s buzzer?  Its one hour cycle can be a way of incorporating prearranged focus periods and breaks into your schedule.  The trick is to do what works best for you. 
  4. Implement some habits to follow each time you task shift.  My friends know that I’m somewhat of a different personality when I’m in “business mode”:  I tend to become very analytical and hyperfocused on what I’m doing.  So if they call when I’m in this mode, I’ll either not answer the phone or answer it in order to reschedule another time when we can talk (unless it is an urgent situation, of course).  Many workers need similar down time to successfully shift from “work” mode to “home” mode.  Sometimes (but not always) this transition period occurs on the commute home:  people who use public transportation are often better able to transition because they don’t have to focus on successfully navigating rush hour traffic. 

    With COVID and the rise in working from home, this clear delineation between work responsibilities and personal ones has been erased.  Work life and home life have been morphed into one space.  To cope, try to find a way to give yourself some space (and grace) to decompress before you shift from one role to another.  It can be a short walk, a brief meditation, or even the simple act of changing your clothes.  Anything that marks the conclusion of work for the day and the permission to now focus on your home life. 
  5. Recognize that you can’t get everything done at once.  This is one of the lies of multi-tasking:  you can save time by doing multiple things at the same time.  The sad reality is that it actually leads to lower productivity due to the brain’s response to task switching. 

    For greater productivity, focus on your priorities as you move through your day.  Instead of multi-tasking, adopt the attitude of single-tasking by focusing solely on one task at a time.  If you’re working on a complex or lengthy project, break it up into bite-sized pieces (rather than trying to do the whole thing in one day).  Always estimate the amount of time that a task is projected to take and then include some “wiggle room” to cover unforeseen obstacles (which can and will occur).  Many people over-estimate what they can accomplish in a day, but vastly under-estimate what they can accomplish in a year.  Using these techniques allows you to better manage your projects as well as celebrate some small wins as you complete each aspect of the task. 
  6. Bonus Tip:  Moving away from multi-tasking can decrease stress and the likelihood of burnout.  Multi-tasking is related to unrealistic expectations.  When the current reality is not aligned with your expectations, burnout often arises.  Plus repetitive task switching is stressful to your brain. Which responds with diminished cognitive ability to perform your tasks.  In contrast, single-tasking is aligned with mindfulness – a practice that many people who have recovered from burnout believe was instrumental for not only their recovery, but also their well-being post-burnout. 

Numerous studies have confirmed that multi-tasking is possibly one of the most inefficient ways to complete tasks and projects.  When projects are unfinished, this hurts the company.  But the greater pain caused by multi-tasking is felt by the individual through guilt, frustration, anger, resentment, and ultimately burnout. 

Single-tasking can help you to reclaim the 40% decrease in productivity that was lost through multi-tasking.  I urge you to try this approach.  I am confident that you will then discover that you feel less stressed, more rested, and even happier and more confident as you move through your day. 

© 2021 G. A. Puleo.  Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on transforming the world of work by eradicating burnout.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s