The benefits of ‘single tasking’ and how to perfect it
“He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.”
~ Charles Dickens
Single tasking is the practice of focusing on one thing alone until it is fully completed. It involves avoiding the many distractions that come our way, such as emails, social media, chatting to friends or colleagues, making a cup of tea or fetching a snack, whilst you finish what you are working on.
In the past multi tasking has been looked upon as a skill to perfect in order to be more productive. There are circumstances where I still believe that it can be very effective, particularly where one or both tasks require little concentration. Where a task takes real focus, single tasking can be much more effective.
I recently read the book ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport. Newport describes Deep Work as ‘Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.’
It was following this that I realized I was spending the vast majority of my time on ‘shallow work’, things that don’t take much concentration or focus such as replying to e-mails, in update meetings or even my writing. I noticed this was often in a shallow work mode, where I start with a very rough draft and then do many revisions, rather than sitting down and focusing to perfect an article in one go. I also noticed that when I am doing shallow work I flit from one thing to another starting many things, but struggle to finalise any one thing.
I decided that I needed to make a shift from shallow to deep work and focus on single tasking to get more things done. I have found that by focusing on one thing at a time, I am a lot more productive and manage to get through much more work. I have been trying out different techniques to implement this.
These are the ways you can effectively achieve single tasking:
1) Set up your environment
If you have the flexibility, you can pay particular attention to the location you work from. To get into deep work to allow you to single task on one activity, you will need an environment where you will not get interrupted. Also, the more you can minimize distractions the better. Choose an environment that will allow you to truly focus.
2) Notice when you get bored and keep at it
Cal Newport describes your brain as a muscle that needs exercising. If you pay attention to your desire to switch tasks when you get bored and then resist the urge to do this and continue focusing on the task in hand you give your brain a workout. Every time you notice that you’d like to stop what you are working on and do something else instead, pay attention to the feeling and take note of the fact that you have ignored the temptation and feel your brain muscle getting stronger. If you keep working on this, you will find that you start to be able to focus for longer and go deeper into each task.
3) Have a plan for how to use your time
Having a clear plan of what you want to achieve in a given time can help you to be more productive. Parkinson’s law states that work expands to take as long as the time you allocate to it. If you give yourself an hour the task will take an hour, if you give yourself 3 hours, it will take 3 hours.
The Pomodoro method is where you chunk your work into 25 minute slots with a 5 minute break between them. You give yourself one task to work on and 25 minutes to complete it. You will find that by allocating one task in 25 minutes it helps you focus on just that one task, as you have a set timeline for it. Of course you can’t finish all tasks in 25 minutes, but it will focus your efforts and you can use another 25 minutes to continue working on something that needs more time.
4) Reorganise your calendar
You need set time allocated to concentrate on deep work. If you have 20 minutes free between meetings it is hard to get into any task that requires deep focus. Take a look at your calendar and see if there is any way to reorganize it so that you can allocate time for deep work. Try defragmenting it by putting all your meetings together and then longer meeting free periods for you to focus on the tasks you need to complete.
You can also try allocating time for yourself first thing and last thing each day. This ensures you always have blocked of time you can use to work on tasks that require more concentration.
5) Schedule breaks and down time
There is only a certain amount of time you can keep working at optimal speed. If you schedule time for short breaks it helps you to refresh and start your next task with more energy. Sometimes going for a short walk and getting some fresh air ensures that you remain alert and energetic throughout the day.
I’d love to hear your views on multi-tasking versus single tasking and what techniques you use to be able to get into ‘Deep Work’
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