November 20, 2014 | Alyson Stanfield

Single-Tasking Is The Answer for Improved Productivity

Would you like to get more done in less time? Then quit multitasking!
Multitasking is working on diverse tasks simultaneously and, usually, doing them all half-heartedly: driving and talking on the phone; attending a webinar and responding to email; or writing a blog post and texting.
Research shows that only about 2.5% of college students can multitask effectively. Two point five percent!

Sculpture of Boat Forms by Corrina Sephora
©2011 Corrina Sephora, Hull Trilogy (dtl). Mixed media. Used with permission.

Studies now show that multitasking is a myth. You simply can’t give your attention to more than one thing at a time.
Health magazine gives 12 reasons to kick the habit, including the insight that multitasking dampens your creativity: (link no longer available)“… multitaskers often find it harder to daydream and generate spontaneous ‘a ha moments’.”

Kick the Habit

To embrace single-tasking, take the first step and turn off your electronic notifications, which means no messages telling you that you have messages.
Let’s face it. You’re probably not sitting around doing nothing when your inbox beeps. You’re likely working on something else when the interruption occurs.
When you stop in the middle of something to look at an incoming email, you’re saying that whatever is in that email is a priority. This is rarely the case.
Responding to electronic interruptions is giving away your power and is the ultimate form of procrastination in contemporary life.

New Day Dawning by Lisa Jennings
©2014 Lisa Jennings, New Day Dawning. Acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 48 x 38 inches. Collection of Al Gore. Used with permission.

If you’re working on your business or enjoying your personal relationships, there is no reason to interrupt the moment. Almost everything except true emergencies can wait until you have completed what you are working on.

Embrace Single-Tasking

Close down the windows on your computer that you’re not focused on, move cell phones out of reach, and stop the multitasking. Concentrate on one task at a time.
Single-tasking is a commitment that takes practice, which means most people can’t go cold turkey. You will improve over time.
Use a timer or a structured focusing tool such as the Pomodoro Technique to keep your eyes and head on your priorities.
Feel free to adopt one of my mantras if you find yourself flitting from this to that and screen to screen:

I do one thing at a time to completion.

Single-tasking is key for a higher level of productivity and a lower level of overwhelm.

23 comments add a comment
  • What a timely message…I really needed to hear that today. Just got back from several weeks of traveling and am completely overwhelmed trying to work on multiple things at once. Time to take a deep breath, prioritize, turn off the notifications and start working on one thing at a time. I’m off to the studio now to finish a commission. Thanks Alyson!

  • elizabeth

    Things show up for a reason and I know I needed to stop multitasking so I could read this. I will be getting better at this. I just did 30 minutes on the treadmill and I did not think about work- only that I am helping my body to stay healthy so i can always do my art work! thanks so much!

  • Alyson, thank you for this clear and concise post and piece of advice. It is so true…and more and challenging to stay focussed with the increasing number of digital distractions and demands.
    I love the way you are able to clearly and compassionately point out things that may seem simple..but we all need support pn to implement.
    Thank you!

  • Yes this is hard, it is a very bad habit, and one that I am determined to break!
    Thanks for the timely reminder!

  • I need to be reminded of this quite often. Thank you for the reminder, Alyson. I am doing so much better. All my notifications on my phone have been off for a while now. No more beepings. Only thing on are my reminders which I set or calendar alerts. I have to make a sign of this: “I do one thing at a time to completion”. Thank you!

  • I get what you saying about single tasking but here s how I do it. I keep a lot of balls in the air at once! I always have a lot of things half made, and work each day at a series of stations. Im kind of a perpetual motion machine. I spend pretty concentrated time at each station though. Nobody can interrupt me at my morning stations especially. …. I maybe in a minority but this works for me.

  • I have to say; I’m more like Kathy in that I juggle more than one thing at a time, but what works for me is that they are all basically the same activity. I usually start 3-4 paintings at the same time. I do the rough sketches at one time for each and then lay in any under painting or basic colors all at one time, settling a bit longer with each as I progress. Since I paint in acrylics, constantly moving from one painting to the next gives it time to set up before the next layer and the insight of one seems to feed into the next. I’m lucky enough to have studio space, which is not at home and lessens the distractions a lot. I am always listening to music and looking at reference photos on my laptop and it can get very tempting to sneak a peek at other technology so I do appreciate your reminder and love the idea of turning off my notifications bells and whistles.

  • Nicky

    I am guilty of the multitasking syndrome, I actually thought to have this skill is a feather in my
    Cap, but having ready your article it made me realize that to focus on
    One thing is the answer and I am going to put this into practice
    My multitasking gets so bad that when I am on my way to do something
    I will fit in two other chores on the way. Thanks for sharing article
    With us

  • By the way: Just today I had to remind myself on numerous occasions of my mantra. It’s a daily practice to stay focused on one task at a time.

  • I usually have the audio turned off when on the computer. One day it was on and my Facebook began to beep with the usual text in the bottom corner. Now usually I glance down and continue with reading the various subscribed pages. With the additional audio alert I found myself pulled to go to the message, reply. This happened several times before I realized I was ensnared and stopped to think “Is this so important that it needs immediate attention?” The answer was NO. I turned the audio off and was able to finish my readings without interruption. (I didn’t even know there was an audio with the message alert lol)
    My point is that audio has me in the unthinking auto response mode. Maybe it has to do with answering the telephone when it rings. I know the landline will take a message if I don’t answer so I can easily ignore it when needed.
    I don’t have a smart phone and use my cell only to call home so I don’t get any incoming interruptions but I can understand how distracted it would be, continually notified of the numerous communications that can occur from a smart phone.
    I like the timer tactic. I use this when I’m having a procrastinating bout. I can tell myself it’s only for x minutes and you can do that. And I do and once I start I can go longer and will unless there is something else I need to do that’s time related. I set the timer and begin. I think physically setting the timer is like an invisible barrier keeping out intruders.
    Good post Alyson. Makes me consciously reflect on my practice and to tidy up.

  • Barbara Mah

    I love to hear this; I always thought that “multi-tasking” was a farce. My mantra is “DO WHAT YOU ARE DOING WHEN YOU ARE DOING IT” (- L. Ron Hubbard.)
    I have recently heard about the studies de-bunking “multi-tasking”, which makes me very happy to be allowed to finish one thing properly before doing something else!

  • Barbara Muir

    Wonderful advice Alyson. Okay. I am settling down to one task
    at a time, and the proverbial (short) list helps. You taught me
    this, and I keep to it, sometimes making a giant list on art paper
    clipped to foamcore.
    It helps so much. Thank you for all of your inspiring posts.
    XOXOXOXO Barbara

  • Our High School Biology Professor gave high priority to beautiful notebooks of his class lectures…So I used to recopy my day’s notes into something legible, & draw additional drawings along(heavily borrowed from a great Encyclopedia)…
    But this was sort of boring work so I always had the tv set on while doing this…
    I learned that multitasking was the only way for me to get through boring work…
    But it is very important for me to cut out this habit when trying to do something A-HA!
    Living in a cold dark climate here, we are actually physically addicted to those Gamma rays our computers & iPhones & tv sets produce…
    I am trying to wean myself not only off social network chattering but also just from the machines themselves…
    Last week 2 ladies gave me my business card Back after I told them they could read my books for free from my website…
    This was a first…I asked why…They said they are not online…No computer…
    I realized I had an addiction problem when I did not understand…No computer? How could they exist? How could they live…?

  • “Work While you Work”
    Work while you work,
    Play while you play,
    This is the way
    To be happy each day.
    All that you do,
    Do with your might,
    Things done by half
    Are never done right.
    Author: Unknown
    Read more at http://www.scrapbook.com/poems/doc/22663.html#DW6cxdC0yuPrISHc.99

  • Maibel Ziello Photography

    Great article! Definitely gives me a lot to think about. I often prided myself on being able to multitask but maybe it’s an illusion. I think I will start putting some single tasking into practice and hopefully feel less stressed.

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