Why You Should Be Single-Tasking, Not Multitasking & How To Make The Switch

mbg Contributor By Anne Marie O’Connor
mbg Contributor
Anne Marie O’Connor is a writer and editor who specializes in health, fitness and nutrition.
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When you're simultaneously checking your emails, shouting to Alexa to text your sister, and ordering your kids' sports equipment, while fretting about an upcoming work presentation as you throw string cheese into school lunch bags, you may feel like you're getting so much more done.

But the reality is that multitasking only offers the illusion of productivity. Often, this is when stress levels are ramped up and more mistakes are made—which usually ends up taking more time in the long run.

Redefining the juggle.

The clinical (and, let's be honest, more accurate) term for doing more than one thing at a time is not multitasking but "task-switching," because in reality, you can't concentrate on more than one thing at a time. In fact, the American Psychological Association has calculated that all of the task-switching we do and all of the distractions caused by technology can cost a whopping 40% of someone's productive time.

But by learning to prioritize tasks, minimize distractions, and focus on one thing at a time, you can actually do a better, more thoughtful job—and #bonuspoints, feel calmer at the end of the day.

Mindfulness, which is the ability to fully focus on one thing at a time and be present in the moment, is the opposite of distractedly multitasking—and can be the key to solving it. "I believe it's the key to a healthier relationship with technology," says Christina Malecka, a Seattle-based psychotherapist and the founder of Digital Mindfulness Retreats.

A 2016 Case Western Reserve University meta-analysis of previous studies noted that it's estimated that the human mind wanders for roughly half of our waking hours but that mindfulness has been shown to improve three qualities of attention: stability, control, and efficiency.

Practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi, or journaling "provide a foundation that makes it easier to step back, see the big picture, respond rather than react, and focus on one thing at a time," Malecka explains. This can help you in every aspect of your life, from home to office. Being mindful can also help you refocus when your day starts to overwhelm you...and we've all had those days.

Ready to toss those multitasking habits to the curb? Consider trying some of these other actions to increase your focus:

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1. Make a master list.

There's the to-do list in your phone, the one on your at-home calendar, plus several Post-its scattered around the house. "It's impossible to start prioritizing if you don't really know all of the things you need to get done," notes Malecka.

Gather them all, and be sure to include all of those things that swirl in your head and create a knot in your stomach. Many people find this list-making incredibly satisfying and can even help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

2. Learn to prioritize.

Be honest, is No. 5 on your list really that important? And is No. 1 truly urgent? If it's hard for you to figure out, try using the task-prioritization method called the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps you prioritize tasks by assessing their level of importance and deciding whether they can be delegated or even taken off the list entirely (see below). Then assess what needs to be done today, and back-burner everything else that you can.

The Eisenhower Matrix:

  • Do First: These are urgent things that need to be done ASAP.
  • Do Later: These can be postponed, but do schedule a time to do them.
  • Delegate: It makes more sense to find someone else to do these.
  • Eliminate: These aren't important and can be crossed off your list.
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3. Set aside concentrated blocks of time to focus on one task.

Shut off all unnecessary technology. Close the door. Put on noise-canceling headphones if you work in a busy office. Do whatever it takes to remove unhelpful distractions. You will find you get more accomplished, which will, in turn, reduce your anxiety and increase your feelings of self-satisfaction.

4. Immerse yourself in nature.

Spending time outdoors is an ideal way to help you relax and open your mind to creative thoughts, and yet many of us suffer from what experts have labeled "nature deficit disorder."

"Nature has the power to transform and awaken us," says Mark Coleman, a meditation teacher in Marin Country, California, and author of Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery. Yet in our busy, high-tech lives, we have lost the ability, sensitivity and skill to listen, feel and sense the natural world."

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