focus: single-tasking and productivity

‘Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.’ ~Alexander Graham Bell

Many of us grew up in the age of multi-tasking, where you couldn’t call yourself productive if you weren’t a good multi-tasker. We learned to always have several balls in the air at once — while writing something on the computer, we had a phone call going, we were writing something on a notepad or paper form, we were reviewing documents, sometimes even holding a meeting at the same time. That’s the productive worker, the effective executive.

When email and Instant Messaging and blogs and the rest of the Internet came along, multi-tasking went haywire. Now we’re expected to do 10 things on the computer at once, still with the paper, phone, and meetings going, along with texting and Blackberry Messaging. Multi-tasking is no longer about being productive — it’s a way of living.

It’s not a sane way of living, however, and it’s not necessarily the most effective way of working either. A few notes on why:

  • Multi-tasking is less efficient, due to the need to switch gears for each new task, and the switch back again.
  • Multi-tasking is more complicated, and thus more prone to stress and errors.
  • Multi-tasking can be crazy, and in this already chaotic world, we need to reign in the terror and find a little oasis of sanity and calm.
  • Our brains can really only handle one thing at a time, and so we get so used to switching between one thing and another with our brains that we program them to have a short attention span. This is why it’s so hard to learn to focus on one thing at a time again.

A single-tasking life

Imagine instead, a single-tasking life. Imagine waking and going for a run, as if running were all you do. Nothing else is on your mind but the run, and you do it to the very best of your abilities. Then you eat, enjoying every flavorful bite of your fresh breakfast of whole, unprocessed foods. You read a novel, as if nothing else in the world existed. You do your work, one task at a time, each task done with full focus and dedication. You spend time with loved ones, as if nothing else existed.

This is summed up very well by something Charles Dickens once wrote, “He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.” This is a life lived fully in the moment, with a dedication to doing the best you can in anything you do — whether that’s a work project or making green tea.

If you live your life this way, by this single principle, it will have tremendous effects:

  • Your work will become more focused.
  • You will become more effective at your work.
  • You’ll become better at anything you do.
  • Your time alone will be of better quality.
  • Your time with your family will be much more meaningful.
  • Your reading will have less distractions.
  • You’ll lose yourself in anything you deem worthy enough of your time and attention.

How to live a single-tasking life

It sounds nice, but how do you live a life like this? Is it as simple as saying you’re going to do it, or is it impossible? Somewhere in between, of course, and like anything worth doing, it takes practice.

Here’s what I’d recommend:

1. Become conscious. When you start doing something, become more aware you’re starting that activity. As you do it, become aware of really doing it, and of the urge to switch to something else. Paying attention is the important first step.

2. Clear distractions. If you’re going to read, clear everything else away, so you have nothing but you and the book. If you’re going to do email, close every other program and all browser tabs except the email tab, and just do that. If you’re going to do a work task, have nothing else open, and turn off the phone. If you’re going to eat, put away the computer and other devices and shut off the television.

3. Choose wisely. Don’t just start doing something. Give it some thought — do you really want to turn on the TV? Do you really want to do email right now? Is this the most important work task you can be doing?

4. Really pour yourself into it. If you’re going to make tea, do it with complete focus, complete dedication. Put everything you have into that activity. If you’re going to have a conversation, really listen, really be present. If you’re going to make your bed, do it with complete attention and to the best of your abilities.

5. Practice. This isn’t something you’ll learn to do overnight. You can start right now, but you’re not likely to be good at it at first. Keep at it. Practice daily, throughout the day. Do nothing else, but practice.

Single-tasking productivity

While the above tips will apply to work tasks as well as life in general, here are some tips focused more on productivity at work:

1. Pick just a few tasks each day. While you might keep a longer master list of things to do, each day you should make a short list — just 1-3 things you really want to accomplish. Call this your Most Important Task (MIT) list. These should be extremely important tasks that will have a high-impact on your life.

2. Don’t do anything else before doing the first thing on your short list of MITs. Don’t check email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, online forums, news sites. Start your day after making your short list by working on your first MIT.

3. Clear distractions. Shut off phones, close the browser if possible, close your IM program if you have one, even disconnect your Internet if you can stand it.

4. One task at a time. Keep things simple, focused and effective by single-tasking. Focus on one task until it’s done, then move to the next.

5. If you feel the urge to check your email or switch to another task, stop yourself. Breathe deeply. Re-focus yourself. Get back to the task at hand.

6. Keep on your MITs until you’re done. Then you have time for email, paperwork, routine tasks, etc. Or if you have the time, pick another set of MITs.

7. If other things come up, note them on a piece of paper or small notebook. These are notes for things to do or follow-up on later, or ideas. Just take a short note, and then get back to your MIT. This way you don’t get sidetracked, but you also don’t forget those things you need to remember later.

8. Take deep breaths, stretch, and take breaks now and then. Enjoy life. Go outside, and appreciate nature. Keep yourself sane.

Keep a very short to-do list, clear distractions, do one thing at a time, until the list is finished. That’s single-tasking productivity at its essence.

On Multi-projecting

There’s a distinction between tasks and projects that should be made in any discussion of mult-tasking. Doing multiple tasks at the same time is less effective than single-tasking. But doing multiple projects at once is sometimes more effective than only one project at once.

Sometimes it’s necessary to work on multiple projects — even if you are in complete control of your work, which is not true for many people. If you only work on one project at once, often you are held up because you’re waiting for somebody to do a task or reply to you with necessary information. What happens then? Or what happens if you’re collaborating on a project but while someone else is doing their part, you don’t have much to do? In these cases, it would probably be a waste of your time if you just waited, and worked on nothing else.

So multi-projecting can work — you get one project going, but while you’re waiting on something, you can switch to a second or even third project. All the time, you’re only working on one task at a time, until each task is done, however.

Do note that there’s a danger in taking on too many projects at once. I’d suggest taking on as few projects as possible. If you can do only one project at a time, without getting stuck in waiting, then do that — it’s much more effective and you’ll get your projects done much faster. But when you must wait, you can switch to a second project. Again, work on as few at a time as you can get away with.

Next chapter: the power of a smaller work focus