Why You Should Start Single-tasking If You Want To Get Ahead

  • Alanna Harvey
  • 21 June 2016
  • 04:00 AM

I usually wake up to my phone’s alarm clock, scroll through the morning headlines, get ready for work listening to Spotify, read emails on the way to the office, and send a WhatsApp message to my mom. Sometimes I tweet something as I peruse Medium, prepare spreadsheets, compose emails, and dive into Google Analytics. I might send a Facebook message to my roommate, watch a YouTube video someone shared with me, forward an interesting article to my team, and read a comic about cats while I’m on Skype with a developer. I’ll bookmark websites to refer to later as I check my Facebook feed, scroll through more headlines from the bathroom, and post something to Instagram. If this sounds at all, even the tiniest bit, like a typical day for you, then it’s reasonable to assume you think you’re the king of multitasking.

— I’m here to tell you that you’re not.

I get it. I get distracted, too. I keep an irrelevant conversation browser open as I’m typing out an important email. I check a notification the second it appears while I’m weeks deep into a report. But I will be the first to admit that I never multitask — I switch tasks. And when I do, I know that it does not contribute positively to my productivity.

I have a clear memory from my childhood of always losing my scissors. I would be cutting along the tricky lines of my construction paper art project, when suddenly I’m interrupted to be asked if someone can borrow my glue. For just the slightest second I would redirect my attention to my glue-seeking friend. Then, returning to my paper, I wouldn’t be able to find my scissors. I’d search frantically around my craft station in desperation for my lost scissors. It would take a few moments of hopelessness before realizing that my scissors were actually in my hand all along.

Surely this has happened to you :  you’re working on one thing, become distracted, and then completely forget what you were doing not even a second later. Collecting yourself to get back into your flow becomes a task in itself — and my guess is that it’s not entirely unusual to find yourself fifteen items deep into a listicle of 17 Tigers Just Being Big Cats, when just minutes before you were completely focused.

Here’s the problem: many of our productive tasks sit dangerously close to our distractions. Imagine if everything productive that you needed to do was isolated on its own — that you could send an important email without your attention being redirected to a ONE-DAY-ONLY travel promotion to Cancun or your friend’s terribly unimportant Snapchat. Imagine how much easier it would be to just get things done.

Of course, someone is going to disagree and say, “What — do you not have any self control?”

But the Internet and all its juiciness is designed to be distracting. Its best content is created mostly by people more clever than you and I, armed with a much deeper understanding of why I click on the things that I click on. Its suggestions for me are often alarmingly spot on — almost like there’s some sort of incredibly powerful algorithm predicting what I’ll do next. Almost.

It's no wonder we think that we can do ten things at once — multi-tasking is this mythical productivity thief produced by the availability of instant gratification. It just feels so good.

We’ve been tricked into believing that having immediate access to do absolutely anything at any given moment has made us more efficient. 

The truth is we’ve sacrificed our efficiency because we always try to do more than we should at one time. We now have everything from social notifications to important emails to news feeds available to us all of the time, at the same time, across multiple devices.

What was once thought to be efficient is now challenging our efficiency. So while you may justify multi-tasking, switching tasks (which is what you’re actually doing) is making you noticeably less productive.

This glorious quote by Clay Shirky from his post Why I just asked my students to put their laptops away really puts multitasking into perspective:

"Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work."

This powerfully simple statement describes exactly what multi-tasking actually is and why it has fooled us all. So what do we do? Well, imagine this: instead of doing multiple things simultaneously,try doing one thing at a time.

It’s an obscure concept, I know. The thought of rejecting the many things we could be doing all at the same time is disconcerting. Just driving instead of responding to emails and driving? Simply writing a report instead of simultaneously scrolling through Instagram? Absurd. We could be doing so much more all at once. 

But consider this: I make an effort to single-task, and I get a lot more done when I do. When I get sidetracked — distracted by anything from an irrelevant text or something work-related — I lose my momentum. I lose speed. I forget where I was or how to get started again.

If people continue to think that they can run several apps and websites simultaneously while they listen in on a meeting, they’re eventually going to get caught. Fierce multi-taskers don’t hide behind it well — their half-finished and unfocused work shows. Their lack of 100% attention to detail is obvious. 

So if you’re the person with “Skilled Multi-Tasker” as a LinkedIn skill (it’s actually an option), you should reconsider whether your ability to do ten irrelevant things at the same time is actually valuable for a prospective employer. And if you disagree with most of what I’ve said, take a look at your last five projects and evaluate them. Is it clear that you gave 100% of your attention and time? If not, then you might want to rethink your strategy.

Managers should be asking every prospective employee that they hire how capable he or she is at single-tasking. How easily can they stay focused on one thing from beginning to end? How much time will they give toward a single task before they get distracted or seek out distractions? How much effort will they devote to their period of work?

We’re in an age where information isn’t going anywhere — there will always be more and more of it. Honing in on your self-control (or lack thereof) is certainly part of the solution, but recognizing the vast difference between multi-tasking and high-quality productivity is the first step to getting ahead. 

Start focusing on single tasks today, right now. Your work quality will improve and the right people will notice.


Use Flipd to accelerate your single-tasking.