We know there’s still a tiny part of you that won’t believe it, but it’s true: multitasking doesn’t work.
You might think you’re getting loads of stuff done, but it’s far more likely you’re just half-doing (or quarter-doing, or eighth, depending on how many things you’re attempting to juggle at once) tasks at a fraction of your ability – and upping your stress levels as a result.
Once you understand that multitasking isn’t the way forward, then what?
Solotasking could be the answer.
What is solotasking?
‘Solotasking is the practice of intentionally doing one thing at a time, focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else,’ productivity coach Karen Eyre-White explains.
‘I like to think of it at two levels. The first is the day-to-day, hour-to-hour level. It means literally focusing on one thing until it’s complete, then focusing on the next thing.
‘Too often we try to do multiple things at once – we quickly check how our social media post is doing, and while it’s loading we check our email, then we start replying to emails… and so on. At this level, solo-tasking is about methodically focusing on one thing after another until it is done.
‘The second level is the project level. For me, this is about not running too many projects at the same time and instead having just one project which is your main focus, perhaps for a month or a few weeks.
‘It can be tempting to think we’re getting more done if we move two priorities forward, but actually we’re just switching our attention between the two and losing a lot of productivity in the process.’
What are the benefits of solotasking?
We know steadfast multitaskers will take some convincing to buy into the idea that their approach isn’t doing them any favours.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of think multitasking is a super-efficient, productive way of doing things, and that if you stop, you’ll grind to a halt.
But here’s the thing – ‘while multitasking can make us feel more productive, solotasking can help us actually become more productive.’ explains productivity expert Tamara Myles.
By ticking off one thing on your to-do list at a time, rather than jumping between tasks, you’ll not only be able to get through the list more quickly, but you’ll also do each task better.
But that’s not the only benefit.
Solotasking can help us get into flow state – when we feel fully immersed in a feeling of focus and joy, and time just flies by.
‘Being in flow increases morale, creativity, and performance and fosters a sense of greater happiness and accomplishment,’ notes Tamara.
Increased energy, reduced stress
Feel like you’re constantly exhausted? Moving from multitasking to solotasking might help.
‘We can’t actually multi-task – do two things literally in parallel – so what we’re actually doing is switching very quickly between tasks,’ notes Karen. ‘This is exhausting for the brain, because it’s constantly re-assessing the task, working out what to do and changing context. We’re left feeling exhausted and wrung-out.’
‘Solo-tasking keeps the brain clear for the task at hand. By focusing on one thing until it is complete, then another, the brain can stay focused and we don’t lose attention as we switch between tasks. It leaves us feeling much less frazzled at the end of the day.’
Tamara sayts: ‘Our brains cannot fully focus when multitasking, so we take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error.
‘After all, multitasking is the art of messing up several things at once. In addition to causing more mistakes, this rapid back-and-forth switching of focus also increases our stress and decreases our wellbeing.’
How to start solotasking
Multitasking – or attempting it – is likely a habit you’ve held for years, so making a change won’t be easy. You’ll need to train your mind to solotask instead, and to accept that this is a better way.
So, how do we get started?
‘When we’re not clear on our priorities, everything feels urgent and important and it can be very hard to overcome the urge to try to move everything forward as quickly as possible – which normally means multitasking,’ Karen tells us.
‘So the first step is to get really clear on what’s most important. This mean might zooming out a bit and thinking about what you’re trying to achieve and then looking at your to-do list to assess which items are most important to move you towards that.
‘Put them in a priority list, and tackle them one at a time.’
Make a plan
Tamara suggests: ‘Start your planning process by taking everything that is swirling in your mind and putting it all on paper or in your electronic system – what I like to call a brain dump.
‘Write down everything that is weighing you down and causing you stress. That includes anything you have to do.
‘Once you have cleared your mind of the swirling to-dos, it is time to look at your list and decide what you are going to do, when, and how.’
‘I advise people to start small, breaking tasks down to something which can be achieved in 30 minutes or so, while you get in to the swing of it,’ Karen says. ‘You can then lengthen the amount of time you’re aiming to focus on one thing for.’
Work out how long each task will take you, bearing in mind that we tend to underestimate this.
Then, bring in time-blocking – where you allocate each task a set amount of time.
Honour your solotasking time
‘When the time comes to work your plan, resist the temptation to multitask by shutting off notifications, putting your phone on “do not disturb” mode, and signaling to others that you wish to not be interrupted by closing your door, wearing your headphones, or other pre-determined norms,’ recommends Tamara.
Help yourself avoid multitasking by eliminating those attention-grabbing things that you know you’ll be tempted to dip into, whether that’s the constant ping of your inbox or having Slack messages pop up on your screen.
Protect your power hour
‘Start to notice what time of day you tend to feel most energized and productive,’ Tamara suggests. ‘For most people, that window is between 9am – 11am, but it can vary greatly (any night owls among us?).
‘Then, protect that power hour for your most important, deep work – the types of tasks that are your highest priority but often end up being pushed aside by endless meetings, emails, and putting out fires.
‘By consistently protecting your power hour for deep work, you will start creating the habit of solotasking (daily actions build habits) and eventually, you will notice the benefits – you feel better, make fewer mistakes, and get more done – and start solotasking more consistently.’
Be prepared for it to feel difficult
Solotasking is a far superior method to multitasking, but it’ll feel weird when you’re making the switch. Don’t beat yourself up or think ‘oh, well this clearly isn’t for me’.
Karen tells us: ‘I advise people to be prepared for how hard it might feel to sit down and focus on one thing without thinking about or doing everything else on their to-do list.
‘For the first few times we try, we may need to repeatedly bring ourselves back to the task at hand.’
Approach solotasking as an experiment
Try out different tweaks and see what works best for you.
‘When scientists conduct experiments, they are hoping to learn, not to get it perfect,’ Tamara says. ‘You can try different variations of solotasking (only in the mornings, perhaps only during power hour, etc.), be curious, and see what works best for you.’
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