Single Tasking: How to Improve Your Creativity and Productivity

As a wordsmith, one of my pet habits is to let people know when I spot a spelling mistake or grammatical error. When I recently did this, my colleague confessed she’d been writing the copy while watching a webinar, hence the reason for the error I had noticed. We all do it (multi tasking, that is) and most of us have the occasional spelling error too. Our banter, that then followed, reminded me of two blog posts I’d previously written about the dangers of multi-tasking.

What The Research Tells us About Multi-Tasking

Taking some time to reflect on what has changed since I first wrote these blog posts encouraged me to revisit the research I’d original referenced when I first wrote about this in 2014. This Business Time article’s headline reads Don’t multi-task: Your brain will thank you and suggests chronic multi-tasking will make you less productive.

In this article, Issie Lapowsky references a 2009 study, by Stanford researcher Clifford Nass. In this study 262 college students were challenged to complete experiments that involved switching among tasks, filtering irrelevant information, and using working memory. Nass and his colleagues expected that frequent multi-taskers would outperform non multi-taskers on at least some of these activities.

And what do you think they discovered?

They found the opposite. Chronic multi-taskers were in fact “abysmal” at all three tasks. The scariest part? Only one of the experiments actually involved multi-tasking, signalling to Nass that even when they focus on a single activity, frequent multi-taskers use their brains less effectively.

Lapowsky asserts that “multi-tasking is a weakness, not a strength” and I agree. Further evidence in a 2010 study by neuroscientists at the French medical research agency Inserm showed that when people focus on two tasks simultaneously, each side of the brain tackles a different task. This suggests a two-task limit on what the human brain can handle.

And the most interesting insight, the one that encouraged me to change my approach to tasks and has been a key tool I’ve used to get work done ever since?

Taking on more tasks increases the likelihood of errors, so Nass suggests what he calls the 20-minute rule. Rather than switching tasks from minute to minute, dedicate a 20-minute chunk of time to a single task, then switch to the next one.

Not convinced? Perhaps you’d like to listen to the Myth of multi-tasking and Clifford Nass, Professor of Communications at Stamford University, exploring the dangers of multi-tasking in the context of your productivity and creativity.

How These Insights Improved My Personal Productivity

While I still multi-task for activities that do not require deep thought, I have adopted the discipline of scheduling time with myself to focus on specific tasks and chunks of work. This is particularly important for me when I write LinkedIn Profile updates for clients, write blogs for clients or Think Bespoke and when I prepare presentations for guest speaking or my LinkedIn Online Seminar Series: The LinkedIn Journey.

Thinking back over the role multi-tasking has played in my life, I am reminded of feedback I used to receive from my teachers. Whenever my parents attended my secondary school parent teacher interviews there was a consistent message from most teachers. ‘Karen is doing well, but needs to stop distracting others’. You see, I somehow managed to chit chat in class and still get my work done.

As the years have passed I have sustained my ability to multi-task, but have realised that I am actually at my most effective when I ruthlessly focus on one task at a time. I am definitely more productive and tap into greater insights when I take a single task approach.

In Psychology Today, The Unintended Consequences of Multi-Tasking, Tim Gilmore reflects on what multi-tasking has done to us, considers what’s wrong with multi-tasking and suggests we consider mono-tasking. He gives the reader the following challenge.

I have a challenge for you. Why not talk this over with your students or kids and encourage them to look at the data. Then—invite them to trade in “multi-tasking” for “mono-tasking.” You read that correctly. Mono-tasking has become a lost art. It means concentrating on one important task, instead of four or five. It’s giving your best effort to one item—not your mediocre effort to several. Most importantly, it enables a student to integrate their life. Integration is taken from the same root word as: “integrity.” It means being one person. Clear. Focused. On-mission. It’s choosing to shun duplicity and hypocrisy in favor of authenticity. It’s really all about mindfulness.

I therefore encourage you to single task and believe that to single task is to ruthlessly focus on one task until it is complete.

The concept of single tasking is similar to the idea of ‘being present and in the moment’, which is why Tim’s suggesting it’s all about mindfulness. This was a concept I first heard when I was approaching my 30s (I think it was Eckhart Tolle in his book, The Power of Now, who shared this with us).

When I wrote the blog post about this in 2014 I said “I am now in my 40th year and see that Smartphones and digital technology are making this concept a real challenge. If we let them.”

This still holds true today and the discipline of saying no to multiple stimuli and tasks is a constant challenge, but one that has its rewards. Consider for a moment (quiet your mind and focus on this one thought) how good it feels when you get into your flow and complete that major thinking task on your to do list. It will be worth the effort of single or ‘mono’ tasking.

how to improve your productivity

How You Can Apply the Concept of Single Tasking to Your Daily Habits

If you are working on important tasks that require higher order thinking and your full attention, then make sure you take a ‘single task’ approach.

No checking emails or answering the phone, tweeting or status updates allowed.

No radio or television on in the background.

Music playing? That’s up to you.

I really enjoy getting into the mental space where I can focus on just one thing.

This was hard for me at first, and with practice, has become a discipline I value deeply. By cultivating my own process for ensuring my full attention is on the task at hand when I am working on my own, I am able to be more productive and creative. The results of my efforts are the reward.

Here are four simple steps to help you focus on one task at a time.

1. Give yourself a time limit

Before you begin a particular task, estimate how long you think it will take you to complete and do your best to stick to this timing. You should have a fairly good idea of how long particular tasks will take. This step encourages you to be efficient with your time. Being effective is part of the next step.

2. Write a to do list, prioritise your tasks and get on with it

To ensure you can focus on just one thing, stay on top of your to do list, prioritise your tasks and then just get on with it. I find following this process also helps to stop the mind noise I mention in the next step. There are many Apps to help you do this. Don’t overthink it. And don’t overlook the value of a handwritten to do list.

3. Learn how to stop the mind noise

To effectively focus, it is critical that you turn off the noise or chatter in your head. This noise may sound something like this – ‘I must call Ralph’ or ‘I wonder what Lyndall meant by that comment’ or ‘I must explore that opportunity Russell mentioned’. If you have followed step 2, then you simply need to tell yourself to work on the task in front of you. The words you tell yourself are powerful. I recommend you use them wisely.

4. Prepare yourself for no distractions

Before I approach a new major task for the day, I always pour myself a glass of water, make myself a cup of tea or simply take a few deep breaths and then begin working. You might also decide to put your phone on silent and turn off the ‘ding’ sound a new email makes so you can ignore any new emails landing in your inbox.

Please have a go at applying these 4 simple steps and leave a comment below telling me how it helped you focus.