The myth of multitasking vs. the art of single tasking

Emma Scheib
4 min readJul 4, 2017
Multitasking extraordinaire

In my 20’s I took pride in my multitasking abilities. I think I may have even included it as a ‘strength’ on my CV! Hell bent on achieving as much as possible every day, this was the only way I could accomplish my epic to-do lists. But it wasn’t until I turned 30, and had our first daughter, that I really began to flourish as a multitasker extraordinaire. How else are you supposed survive to those first few months, let alone the years to follow!

I knew how to fold a load of washing, while stirring dinner on the stove, while talking on the phone, while entertaining my 6 month old! And it felt GOOD! Except the good feelings never lasted. They soon made way for an exhaustion that was all consuming. It turns out our bodies and brains aren’t really wired for that kind of nonsense! In fact, operating in this manner actually uses up the oxygenated glucose in the brain, the fuel we need for concentrating on a task. So then we find ourselves turning to food and coffee to make up for what we’ve used with our multi-tasking.

The term multitasking first appeared in 1965 and was used to describe IBM’s technology, and computers ability to multitask. Links to human behavior were made, and viola! The term became synonymous with the fast pace of life that many people live. And the myth, that multi-tasking allowed someone to do more, was born.

Nowadays, multitasking is more likely to be recognised for what it is — one of the biggest productivity killers. Studies have shown that it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on focus on a task after switching to something else. This is particularly evident when we are multi tasking with something cognitively demanding. Who has an extra 23 minutes (times that by how many times you switch) to spare everyday!

The terminology has also changed. It turns out that most of the time what we are actually doing when we ‘multitask’, is task switching. Think of my example above. Yes, I could talk on the phone and stir the food in the pot, but I couldn’t ALSO be folding the washing. That would literally require another set of arms. So what I described is instead, task switching. I’d stir the pot, fold a couple of items, stir the pot, talk to the baby, fold some more.

The biggest problem I eventually had (and still do) with multitasking was what it did to my mental health. My anxiety levels sky rocketed when I was constantly multitasking or task switching. My brain literally could not keep up with the to do list. I ended days like this feeling fraught, on edge, and unsatisfied.

Enter single tasking. And i’ll warn you now. Its a hard act to follow. But I reckon if you give it a try you’ll find its a game changer.

You might be asking how the heck do you single task? After all, for lots of us it doesn’t come automatically anymore. There are lots of tips for something that seems…. well, self explanatory. And if you have the well worn habit of task switching, then you might find you need lots of practice to try and swap this out for single tasking.

Single tasking is an art. Here are some ideas to get you started;

  1. Focus on one thing… Try and notice the task you are currently doing AND fully engage with it. For example, if it’s folding the washing, focus on JUST that. Focus on that one thing and do it well (lol, fold your washing like a boss). You might want to check out this book for more about focusing on one thing.
  2. Reduce distractions…. When you are on your phone, laptop or whatever device of your choice, keep one tab open at a time! I know this one’s pretty shocking, and sometimes if you are working you need more than one… but how often do you really need Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram open at the same time? I constantly find myself switching back to Facebook for no bloody good reason!!! I’ve just installed a chrome app called waste no time, which blocks Facebook for me after a certain period of time.
  3. If you make ‘to do’ lists like me, try completing each task fully, before moving on to the next one! Lots of day I get to the end of my day not being able to cross anything off, each task is half done. I’ve either been interrupted and then decided to move on to the next thing, or found the chosen task too difficult and procrastinated by moving down the list. How ridiculously unsatisfying!

Here’s the kicker. If you have kids, single tasking might be near-on impossible. These tiny little humans are experts at interrupting us and basically demanding we task switch to whatever the heck they want us to do! So you simply won’t get to do it every time. But practice makes perfect and one day you’ll find yourself in a season where mindful single tasking can happen more often.

Charles Dickens had some great insight on this. Maybe this is how he got some of his great works, like Oliver Twist completed.

He did each single thing as if he did nothing else.