Single-tasking and the Myth of Multitasking Productivity

Darryl Bachmeier
Apr 24, 2019

If your work routine involves endless to-do lists, if during your day you jump from branch to branch trying to do a little of each thing to meet all your demands, if you have the feeling that everything important was to yesterday, then maybe it’s time to stop to gauge how you’re working.

The attempt to do several things at the same time (“multitasking” in the English term, which does not have a version like this in Portuguese) is very seductive. The notion that we will be able to do more during the day is extremely seductive, and we will do anything to make us believe we will gain a little bit more from this scarce commodity. However, today it is known that the idea that you can do several things at once is a myth.

The doctor in psychology Jim Taylor (a doctor himself, those with Ph.D. in the signature) describes in his blog some interesting concepts about the myth of multitasking. According to him, in fact, we can only achieve true multitasking under some very specific conditions. For example, when one of the two tasks is so routine that it can be automated, such as driving. Another alternative is when activities use completely different areas of the brain, such as reading and listening to music. As these conditions are generally not met in our work activities, the bottom line is that we are not really capable of being “multitasking” in our work. What we do is to switch between various tasks at very short intervals of time. The doctor cites a large number of studies that prove the inefficiency of “multitasking,” leading to a loss of 40% in productivity in some studies, with the loss increasing as the complexity of the work being performed increases.

The problem is that our brain needs some time to “get accustomed” to each activity, and only after that time does we reach our highest productivity point in a given activity. If we spend a little more time on each activity, the impact of this period throughout the day is less. However, if we switch very quickly from one task to another, we end up finding ourselves a good deal of the time in this low productivity moment.

Once we have determined that what we do at work is not really “multitasking” but rather “serial tasking,” that is, switching quickly between activities, the solution seems obvious: do one thing at a time until it’s done. It is easy to identify some benefits:

Single-tasking forces us to stay focused and helps to reflect on complex problems; It improves the ability to manage time by facilitating the identification of which tasks are wasting time; We produce more since we reduce the cost associated with constant task changes; It reduces stress because we are now dealing with one problem at a time.

And how to transform our method of work? Here are some tips:

Keep a complete list of your issues, but during the day use a short list, just what you intend to do on that day. If you use a tool, use your workspaces, folders, and projects for the complete list, and use “My Day” to keep your list short. Keep the list of the day organized and up to date, and then forget about the full list. Use a technique to help you stay focused. I strongly recommend the Pomodoro Technique, but any technique that helps in its concentration serves. End the distractions. Email does not need to be answered immediately, so close your email client. Headphones (even without music playing) are often great to keep the next colleague from pulling out a conversation. Attack your list until you finish it. Do less. This does not mean producing less. It means giving 100% focus and attention to what you do, and completing the activities, you initiate.

With the concept of single-tasking, we were able to extract a little more productivity from our day. Since we can not add hours a day, any attempt to extract more of the time we have is valid. Of course, the concept of “single-tasking” involves a set of changes in our work routine, and this involves discipline and the ability to observe and reflect on our own work. It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it’s certainly worth it!


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