One thing at a time. Why multi-tasking is only for computers.[lead]Ok, I admit it: I sometimes make sexist jokes and comments. That doesn’t mean I’m a sexist. It just means the gender discourse is not safe from my humorous tendencies. I can’t and don’t want to help it. My partner, in business as well as in private life, is my most regular target.[/lead]
One hilarious observation with her can regularly be made in the field of multitasking. She just isn’t particularly good at it. So it is not uncommon for her to stop (let’s make it even more sexist here) washing the dishes while answering a question from someone else. The water keeps running, the brush in her hand extends her gestures while she answers the question. Until the other person recognizes the effects of the interruption and asks her to go back to the routine. As the other person turns out quite often to be me, she’s not safe from comments about the fact that women are supposed to be better at multi-tasking than men, and about the where’s and why’s of all that.[lead]So this post has two goals:[/lead]
- Being an apology for being that dick who repeats the same “jokes” over and over again. Sorry Mirjam, I really appreciate how you can handle that!
- Looking a bit into the field of multitasking vs. single-tasking, and [spoiler alert!] finding out that no human being is able to multi-task after all.
I’d like to make the transfer from dishwashing to getting stuff done now. I don’t know about you, but I face a very similar challenge every day: various things, already prioritized as high(ish), would like to be done. They’re occupying the top of the ‘to do’ list, waiting for the moment of relief: “resolved”.
My natural tendency, being a bit of an all-over-the-place person, would be checking various tasks out in parallel. Digging a bit into everything, seeing what is most satisfying at this moment, and proceeding with that one. Let’s make it short: that hasn’t turned out to be the most efficient way of doing things, and we all know it.
Science backs me: multitasking is only for computers
As I (let alone Mirjam :D) have failed in doing multiple things at the same time, I looked a bit into the why’s. And it turns out that the trend of multitasking was never invented for humans in the first place. We must have read that somewhere on PC specs years ago and “adopted” it.
We literally are not able to do two things at the same time. Instead the brain switches in-between tasks, re-assigning the resources. And it gets worse: every time the task is being switched, the brain needs a certain time to refocus. A study done by R. E. Mayer brought the scientist to the conclusion that it often takes people double the time or more, when they attempt to complete various tasks in the same time. 
Multitasking is only for computers.
Of course there can be some kind of “evolution” observed when it comes to doing various non-demanding things (rather than tasks) at the same time. The younger generation seems to be able to media multi-task much more than their grandparents. These trained usage patterns however do not prove that the mind actually does process anything in parallel. It doesn’t.
So, as we’re not made for multitasking, and modern environments have the tendency to demand that from us, we have to have an active toolbox to prevent from sliding into trying.
I’m so not afraid of mentioning the obvious: For staying with a single task, you have to prevent other tasks from approaching you. At least for a certain time. These approaches could be notifications. Turn them off. All of them. I cringe whenever I see smart people being distracted by notifications of incoming emails. Switching all that off is an easy win!
But other tasks can also approach you in the form of human beings. That’s a tricky one, because depending on the environment you’re in, you might have to show some social skills for preventing them. In a working environment it’s a good idea to develop a culture of not disturbing others. The pomodoro technique can help. Very briefly, that technique makes use of a 25 minute timer in which you focus on one task only. Communicate that you don’t want to be disturbed during a pomodoro (be creative: get a USB traffic light).
Before you can start your focus time (e.g. a pomodoro), of course you must have a goal. One goal. Different productivity systems have different opinions on what that goal has to look like – in my opinion it’s enough to dedicate yourself to working on one particular thing. It could be a certain client, or a certain actionable task for that client. It depends a lot on what field you’re working in.
Don’t over organize
Do not organize too much, it’s a trap. And it’s often an excuse for not doing the work. I personally have very vague ‘to do’ lists, because when I itemize too much I spend just too much time renaming, re-sorting and reprioritizing mini tasks. Part of the trap is also switching organizing systems too often and always trying out the latest project management tools. A thing I myself passionately waste time with way too often.
Simplicity and a clear structure helps a lot. For example if you already have one day a week dedicated to a special project or client, you don’t have to make the same decisions every day. It’s already decided and you can jump straight into the real work, rather than trying to do multiple things at the same time. Or restructuring your ‘to do’ list.
Focusing is actually quite demanding at times, especially for long periods of time. Having breaks is crucial. It helps a lot moving those breaks away from the screen. However, as you’re not scrolling down your favorite social network while working, be honest with yourself and also treat those activities as a break. Additional benefit: when considering surfing on Facebook a break, I catch myself preferring spending my precious break time not in there, but off-screen.
Diet and sleep
If you’re up for it I’m going to tackle your private life now. The ability to focus is very closely related with your most essential habits: eating and sleeping.
I’m not a nutritionist, that’s why I like solving dietary questions with common sense: eat healthy, fresh, unprocessed foods and don’t over or under eat. While that sounds utterly simple, almost unnecessary to talk about, it doesn’t seem to be common sense for everyone. Just look around.
My advice regarding sleep is: have plenty. I might sound obvious again here, but again: look around. How many people are draining themselves by over working and sleeping too little.
Just don’t make stupid mistakes with diet and sleeping patterns and you are fine here.
Make it a habit to focus. I haven’t found anything better than meditation for that purpose. And I’m not talking about those running-and-letting-the-monkey-mind-go-crazy “meditations”. I’m talking about meditations with a focal point for the mind. Anything. It could be a mantra, thought, image, candle flame… there are plenty of methods out there. Chose one and stick to it. I guarantee you it helps.
Don’t try to multi-task. You’ll just waste time.
And as an additional takeaway from that post: apply the “one thing at a time” principle also to your website. Because guess what: your website’s visitors are also not able to multi-task! Don’t ask them to do a ton of things at the same time, they can’t. If you want to see some inspiring examples of simple, single call-to-actions and a Zen visitor flow on websites, check out our ebook about Zen principles in web design.
PS: With that article my, and all other men’s and women’s comments about multitasking abilities for a specific gender, must end. There is no real data for a significant difference in multitasking skills between male and female human beings.
Picture by Editor B, Flickr.