Multi-tasking vs. Single-Tasking: Intentionally Managing Your Attention and Time

Written by: Linda Evans, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Have you been trying to get more done by multi-tasking? A better question might be, when was the last time you did NOT multi-task? Those times are rare due to the large variety of tasks we need to do for our jobs and families, not to mention basic self-care like getting enough exercise and eating healthily.


However, multi-tasking is a myth. It is literally impossible for our human minds to do more than one thing at once. When we attempt to multi-task, it’s really just our brains switching between tasks, and each time we do; our brains consume extra time and energy. This increases the likelihood of making mistakes because our attention is not fully devoted to the task or is not concentrated on the task for very long. Therefore, it actually takes longer to do any task while multi-tasking because we are not fully focusing on it and need extra time to fix mistakes. The more tasks we try to juggle, the less effective we are at any of them. So instead of feeling productive and saving time, we feel more exhausted, distracted, and less productive.


“But there are not enough hours in a day!”


Realistically, it is likely not possible to be single-tasking all the time. Some things don’t require singular focus and may actually be more enjoyable while multi-tasking, like listening to music while washing dishes. Other things are dangerous to do while multi-tasking, like texting while driving. The key is to decide which tasks require and deserve single-tasking and which tasks can be stacked with others.


Here are some common tasks we try to do while multi-tasking but probably should not - tasks that take careful word choice, critical thinking, and/or deep listening.


  • Participating in Zoom meetings, 1:1 conversations, or 1:1 quality time with a loved one

  • Writing reports, emails, or texts

  • Conducting research or analysis

  • Attending conference sessions


Single-tasking during these types of tasks will not only increase comprehension, quality, and connection, it will also conserve energy. When we eliminate the tug of war for our attention, we instantly feel more relaxed and less anxious.


Additionally, people can usually discern whether you are multi-tasking while talking to them, even if the distraction is invisible in your mind. Your time and attention are arguably the most valuable and generous things you can give anyone. Single-tasking while being with others - whether it be a 1:1 with a colleague, a date with your romantic partner, or a playdate with your child - will strengthen your relationships. Multi-tasking while being with others will erode your relationships over time.


Some tasks can actually be enhanced while multi-tasking. When we need to do something physically tedious or repetitive, it is often much more pleasant to combine it with something that entertains the mind auditorily (rather than visually). Pairing a task from each list would be a harmless and even productive way to multi-task.


Body:

  • Exercise

  • Chores

  • Yardwork

  • Eating

  • Grooming

Mind

  • Music

  • Podcasts

  • Audiobooks


To single-task while doing important things, we cannot rely on willpower alone. Our multi-tasking habits and distractions (both internal and external) will win. Single-tasking is a skill like a muscle; it gets stronger with practice.


Here are some tips for setting ourselves up for success to practice single-tasking:

  • Do daily meditation to practice bringing your mind back to one thing: breathing

  • Get sufficient sleep so you will have enough mental energy to redirect your attention

  • Write a “vomit list” in which you unload everything on your mind before starting a task

  • Schedule single-tasking blocks on your calendar and stick to it - ideally 30-90 minutes

  • Communicate to people who may interrupt that you will be unavailable during single-task blocks

  • Hide or delete all browser tabs except the one(s) you need for your task

  • Take brief breaks to move your body and rest your eyes

  • Turn your phone to silent and put it in another room

  • Turn off notifications on your computer

  • Clear your desk


Obviously, not all distractions and interruptions are within our control. Things will come up to hi-jack your attention. Quickly assess if it is urgent to respond to, and if not, return your attention to your task.


Ultimately, our lives are a combination of multi-tasking and single-tasking. Rather than haphazardly trying to do multiple things at once and doing all of them poorly, we can take more control over what we focus on singularly, and when we multi-task. The key to living a productive and meaningful life is to be intentional about how we manage our time and attention.


Make sure to follow Linda on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit her website for more info!


Read more from Linda!

Linda Evans, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

LindaEvans is a strengths-based career coach and personal branding expert. In 2011, she founded her virtual career coaching business, Launched by Linda, LLC. Her full-time career has been in higher education since 2012 and she currently works in Career Services at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Linda has a B.A. in American Studies and minor in Ballroom Dance from Brigham Young University, and an M.A. in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University. She is also a Gallup-Certified Strengths Coach, and has certificates in positive psychology and public speaking.

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