One Thing at a Time

Woman carrying 3 binders

There was a time when I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything unless I was accomplishing two or three somethings at the same time. After all, with so many things to do, of course I have to do more than one at a time if I’m ever going to get them done. Right?

Recently I also recognized how horrifically difficult it had become to focus on anything for a substantial amount of time. I’d trained myself, through incessant multitasking, to not focus at all. When there was one thing that desperately needed to get done, it took much longer than one thing should have.

Multitasking is sometimes a very important skill (if you can talk and prepare dinner at the same time, you can have a lot of important conversations while also meeting a basic human need). But it isn’t important for everything, and in some cases it’s downright disastrous. Most of the time, even when you have loads of tasks and projects, it’s more effective to put all your attention into just one thing, obliterate it quickly with your overpowering focus, and move onto the next item on your list. When you’re trying to please ten people with different desires, you’ll only somewhat satisfy them even when you’re at your best; if you’re just meeting one person’s wishes, you can blow away his or her expectations. It’s typically the same way with tasks: the more you try to do at once, the lower quality you’ll deliver on each one.

So if you have, like I had, engrained multitasking into your soul to the extent that you can’t possibly do just one thing, it’s time to reboot your focus system.

Meditate. On a regular basis, put everything away, turn off background noisemakers, sit or lie down, close your eyes, and meditate. Don’t be too restrictive on what meditating should mean. You can try to use this time to focus on a particular problem or event, but you can also let your thoughts freely wander wherever they will or try to achieve a Zen moment of thinking about absolutely nothing. Depending on why your focusing mechanism is broken, one method or another may work better for you (I personally needed to let my mind do some frantic scrambling for a while before I could focus). Meditation time may be hard to come by if your “background noisemakers” are uncontrollable things like small children, but you should put in the effort to make an adjustment (like waking up a little bit earlier) to get your moments of quiet time in so you can restore your focus.

Dedicate. While you’re weaning yourself off multitasking, it will probably be useful to construct part of your day in which multitasking is not possible (or at least extremely difficult). Make distractions or other tasks unavailable—disconnect from the internet, close your office door and put and intimidating sign outside, etc. You may want to dedicate yourself to focused time for the first hour or two of your workday, when you’re working on your most important project. Don’t let yourself work on anything else during that time. Your mind may wander and it may be difficult, but allow no multitasking whatsoever. After a while, your brain will get used to the idea. If you’re allowing the rest of the day to retain your old habits, focusing for those two hours will be an easier transition to make than dropping multitasking cold turkey.

Evaluate. At the end of each day, evaluate how for focusing efforts panned out. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Try to identify any triggers that make you plummet into nonproductive multitasking. After checking your email and seeing all your unread messages, do you panic and start to answer them all while still trying to complete your big project? Then stop checking your email so often. Try dedicating your single-task time to your big project and keeping email far away while you do.

Replicate. Once you find a trick that helps you focus, use it every time. If meditating keeps your mind from hamster-wheeling, make meditation your knee-jerk reaction to distracting events (like unread emails). If instead you find that taking a short walk during the day works better, plan several during the day. Expand your no-multitask time to include more and more of your day, until you only multitask when there really is no other option (because, let’s face it, sometimes it’s necessary).

How do you commit your attention to just one thing? Or have you found that in your case multitasking results in higher quality?

Image by Michal Marcol via

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