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Why multi-tasking is a myth and single-tasking the (newish) kid on the block

Benefits of single tasking and strategies to get there

21st  February  2019

I am (still) a multitasking queen or wanna-be-multitasking-queen. And I don't like it. A few weeks ago it hit me that I don't see to get stuff done the way I want it or my to-do-list magically fills up and by the end of the day I have not done what I actually was planning on doing and I had no time left but felt mentally and physically exhausted by all the things I have done instead.


It got that far that I got anxious about to finish certain projects in a certain time frame and was stressing myself out. Like my studies of my Health and Nutrition Coaching which I want to have done and dusted by the end of June 2019. Lying awake at night or being awakened by those anxious thoughts that I won't be able to finish set me into action. Whenever I worry too much I spring into action or write things down so I see it on black and white. And it helps me dramatically. Things get easier and I see where the 'problem' lies and act towards it.

In my case, I did a little experiment with me. I wanted and needed to see how I spend my time during a regular day, what I was doing exactly that made me feel the way I described above. So I did the Scripting exercise we have learned in our coaching studies: I scripted out a few days in a row what I exactly did each day – down to the very details. And found my issue: While I am doing one thing (let's say I am brushing my teeth) I was making my tea in the morning at the same time. Next, I had planned to finish getting myself ready in the bathroom for the day but on the way back from the kitchen (from making my tea and still with my toothbrush in my mouth) to the bathroom I see that the toilet seat is up, so I jump in there to close the seat (I absolutely dislike open toilet seats!) While I close the toilet seat I see how dirty it is and start getting the cleaner out to clean it.

Another example is that when I am in the kitchen preparing food or dinner a thought pops into my head (like I need to get the meat out for tomorrow) and in the middle of my dinner preparation I jump away and get the meat out of the freezer (got to do it now before I forget, right?)


So, you see the bigger picture: I am loading myself with little things that I see and that pop up in my beautiful mind and tend to do them right away while I also do another task already – ending up being this master-ultra-multitasking-queen that feels exhausted, anxious and stressed out at some days and feel like I have just run a marathon twice. From this whole thing I came to realize that I need to revert back to single- or unitasking for the benefit of my health for body and mind. Hence, I have done a bit of research about the topic of multitasking versus single- or unitasking and their benefits/ drawbacks and proven strategies to be a better unitasker – in my case: An absolute ultra-cool-uni-tasking-queen :D

And while I am at it doling the research I am just realizing now, by writing this blog, how much society as influenced our being, our acting and our expectations and if not but also our entire way of living life – and this is very much in a cognitive way.


Looking back on my previous blogs/post I have written about judgment-free life-styles and living, about having time and rushing, about listening skills etc. and now writing about multi- and single-tasking, it has once again, dawned on me, how society has its fingers in this.


These days it looks good when you respond to the question: ‘ How you doing?’ or “How are you?’ with ‘BUSY’. Through jobs and careers and even advertisement, we are under immense pressure to make the most of the time we have each day. ”Move fast and break things,” “Do more with less,” etc. If you put into your skill’s list the skill ‘multitasking’ or a job description has the skill listed and requires the skill: ‘multitasking’ as a preferred skill the apple doesn’t fall too far from the stem that we human beings are being cognitively influenced that multitasking is good, great and we are more successful if we can multi-task these days.

“(…) Most of us fell into the habit because the allure of getting more done is too strong to pass up. We’re all working with the same number of minutes in the day, and—in theory—the people who can somehow squeeze in even 5% more work into the time they’ve got come out ahead, right?” (Jason Fitzpatrick)


The drawbacks of multitasking:

Doing multitasking has been proven to slow down productivity (so it is actually counterproductive!) : Juggling tasks divides your attention, increases the time spent refocusing on important tasks (making you less productive), decreases your accuracy and robs you of a powerful focus that you could be spending on a single important task.


According to INC. , MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, who says, "[Our brains are] not wired to multitask well.” Our brains are not designed to do more than one thing at a time! “(…)when people think they're multitasking, they're actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there's a cognitive cost."


Multitasking doesn’t allow your brain to organize your thoughts properly. Multitasking makes it more difficult to organize thoughts and filter out irrelevant information, and it reduces the efficiency and quality of our work. A three seconds distraction could lead to double the mistakes. This result was reported from a study, which was undertaken with 300 Michigan State students in America by testing them on their ability to persevere through interruptions while taking a computer test.


When we complete a tiny task (sending an email, answering a text message, etc.), we are hit with a dollop of dopamine, our reward hormone. Our brains love that dopamine, and so we're encouraged to keep switching between small mini-tasks that give us instant gratification.


Multitasking can also affect us harmfully in a physical and mental way:

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. Having our brain constantly shift between tasks leaves us feeling mentally exhausted, destroys our cognitive resources and could possibly leave us with mental decline, concentration impairment, decreased sharpness and damage to our memory region in our brain if left unchecked.

The actual stress that multitasking can bring with it can affect our bodies in a negative physical way and leave us feeling burned out, physically exhausted and tired, affects our digestive system in a negative way, increases anxiety and heart disease and could cause sleep disruption.


Think about time like money:

You can’t buy a $20 pans and a $20 T-Shirt with the same $20 note. Even if that is money it does relate exactly equally to time – if two projects require about 2 hours each to be finished then we cannot use the same 2 hours to finish the two projects in the same time (2 hours). Makes sense? If you think about it, time is even more important than money because time is more scare in our society these days and we only have so many years of life given to live.


Benefits of single/unitasking:

  • More productivity

According to Keller, “going small” means ignoring all the things you could do and focus on what you should. This means recognizing that not all things matter equally and that our best results come when we find the things that matter most.

  • More quality work is done

Because your entire attention is focused on one task – do it properly – do it right, make fewer mistakes

  • Rebuilds focus and stretches your attention span

Single-tasking is the aphrodisiac to attention. Doing more of it, in the long run, will train your brain to be more focused on a task for a longer period of times.

  • Less stress

You are concentrating on one task at a time and your brain does not have to switch from one task to another at the same time remembering where you left off with the other task you doing simultaneously.

  • Creates mindfulness and being present

Single-tasking is resonating with mindfulness: It allows us to appreciate what it is we’re doing because we’re not splitting our focus between tasks at once. As a result, it can make us happier as it introduces simplicity into our day.

  • Improves our communication and our relationships

When we single-tasking, we not only give our full attention to another person, we also are more in-tune with our thoughts. The end result is an individual that is thoughtful, respectful, and present – all necessary components for one to be an effective communicator. This also affects relationships accordingly: The person you having a conversation with or even any other person you have a relationship with will feel more valued and worth by you being focused entirely on them.

  • Promotes self-discipline

Self-discipline is manifested through conscious, committed effort. Distractions, no matter how pleasant they may seem at the time, cause us to “give in” to them. When we “give in” to those distractions, we are effectively handing over our self-control. Self-control is built through single-tasking, and self-control is the sibling of self-discipline.

  • Conserves energy

The brain is the part of our body that consumes more energy than any other part of our body. Multitasking zaps on our brain’s energy reserves because we’re constantly shifting attention. When we single-task, we direct our entire attention to the task at hand. Our short-term memory is benefited because we’re not continuously attempting to remember where we left off, and on what task. This added benefit also helps to keep our energy levels up.


Strategies/tips and ways to start practising single-tasking:

  • Don't look at your phone/computer in the morning

  • Start small and set your timer

Start with as little as 5 minutes of distraction-free and single-tasking focused time a day. When that starts to feel easy, try something like the Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of work followed by a five-minute break).

  • Take breaks between each single-tasking sessions

Single-tasking takes effort and energy. And to keep up with its demands, you need to take periodic breaks to replenish your stores.

  • Eliminate outside distractions

Turn off notifications so you can concentrate effectively, put the phone or other distraction away so you don't see them and get teased into using them.

  • List out your priorities

Before getting to work, write a to-do list of the most important tasks needed to be completed that day and work on them in that order.

  • Be mindful

While working, and even multi-tasking, be present while you doing it.

  • Reduce the number of browser tabs you have open at any given time

Using fewer programs or open pages will decrease distraction and increase focus and thus allow you to singletask more effectively.

  • Schedule a time for distractions

If a thought pops into your head or you see something that you need to get done but it is not on your list – write it down quickly and get back to your original task. In that case, it will be out of your head and you can come back to it later when you have the time and space.

Also, dedicate a certain time period where you check emails or facebook or other social media stuff. This is also called clutter-tasking.

  • Say NO

Say no to commitments that don't serve you at that moment. Try to re-schedule these for a better time that suits you better without feeling guilty towards letting someone fall.

  • Have a clean working station

Clean/clear desk – clear mind

  • Strengthen your focus

Schedule a small amount of time where you can just deal with a mentally challenging task. Once you complete that, extend the time even further so you can strengthen your focus.

  • Uni/singletask during your prime time

Always try to do your most challenging work during your most effective times. For example, if you are a morning person, use that time to tackle your harder projects instead of just answering emails.

  • Know yourself and your habits

If you want to eliminate your multitasking habit, track your work day. Keeping a log/journal or scripting out your day-to-day routines and how you go about each regular day helps to identify patterns of how effective you work and when you get distracted. It can keep you aware of your weak moments of when you lose focus so you can fix them for the future.

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