I Stopped Multi-Tasking for an Entire Week and Actually Got Stuff Done
It wasn't easy—but it was important.
Task-switching doesn't do a body (or career) good. Not only can it slash your productivity by as much as 40 percent, but it can morph you into a full-blown scatterbrain. For maximum efficiency, single-tasking, or the alien concept of focusing on one thing at a time, is where it's at. I know it, you know it, yet I'd bet my life savings (of eight dollars) that as you're scanning this article, you've got 75 browser tabs open, your phone is about to vibrate itself right off your desk, and you're unable to resist getting sucked into a vortex of adorable cat videos-because, me too.
Sure, you're not getting as much done as you would doing one thing at a time, but how much of a difference does single-tasking really make? I decided to find out. For an entire week (gulp!), I attempted to do one thing at a time: write one article, open one browser tab, have one conversation, watch one TV show, the works. The result? Well, it's complicated.
Like most people who are two seconds into changing a bad habit, I felt like a baller. I strutted around my apartment and did the morning routine stuff-yoga, shower, breakfast-without a hitch. Once I had my to-do list written, it was off to the races.
I started off strong, diving right into a round of revisions I had to complete. As I got deeper into the process, I was hit by a jolt of restlessness. Usually, I'd send it packing by checking my email or scrolling through Twitter. At one point, my finger even hovered over the Twitter app momentarily, but I managed to power through. I didn't check my email until after I was done, which was a welcome break from all that focusing.
As the day wore on, things started to get tricky. Even with single-tasking my butt off, the revisions took longer than I thought they would and caused delays with another assignment that was coming due. The more anxious I felt about meeting my deadline, the harder it became for me to single-task-I was so focused on not falling prey to the short-term satisfaction task-switching provides that ironically, I couldn't focus.
Since staring blankly at the screen with a clenched jaw wasn't getting me anywhere, I turned to a guided meditation on my yoga app to chill out my brain, followed by a quick bite to eat. I sat by the window and actually focused on eating my lunch, as opposed to my usual routine of hoovering it at my desk. I also took the time to acknowledge how antsy I was feeling (and how badly I wanted to look up that week's Days of Our Lives spoilers), but I reminded myself that the short-term pain of single-tasking would be worth the long-term gain.
The pep talk worked: I finished my article with time to spare and went to my mom's for dinner. Since single-tasking and cell phones don't mix, I decided to leave mine at home and fully focus on the visit. It was surreal having an entire conversation with the fam without any pinging, ringing, or vibrating distracting me. Later, I went to sleep feeling surprisingly clearheaded. (Yep, I was experiencing the physical and mental benefits of organization, and I liked it.)
You know that zen feeling I went to bed with? Yeah, it didn't last. I'm not sure what contributed to my sleep debt more: my cat or my bladder. Between getting no sleep and a morning full of interruptions (two phone calls, apartment building drama, and a drop-in from a long lost friend), I didn't just fall off the single-tasking wagon, I was thrown off and run over by it.
The rest of the day became an over-caffeinated race against the clock as my morning work trickled into the afternoon. Task-switching became a method of soothing my anxiety as I battled my way through deadlines that were now spilling into each other-checking my email every three seconds, scrolling through my Twitter feed, switching between endless browser tabs, organizing assignment files. It was almost like I was bingeing on this no-win habit to make up for all the times I restrained myself the day before.
I finally called it quits at 3 a.m. I did some last-minute organizing to set myself up for a better day tomorrow, but in the process I accidentally deleted an assignment from my files that I thought I'd already submitted. So not only did task-switching lengthen my workday by several hours, the quality of my work was diluted as I spent the the majority of Day 3 rewriting an assignment that was lost during the madness of Day 2. Lesson learned.
Once I was finally back on the wagon, I decided the best way to stay there was to keep tabs on my restlessness. Trying so hard to stay on task and not get distracted was in itself distracting, so instead I took mini-breaks anytime my mind started to wander. If I was feeling scattered, I'd pull up a five-minute meditation on my yoga app. (Did you know that there are certain yoga poses that can help you focus?) If I was feeling anxious, I'd do five minutes on my stair-climber. I also found that jotting down the random task I wanted to switch to counteracted the urge to follow through with actually switching to it. (P.S. Here's how to write your to-do list in a way that makes you happier.)
When I went out to run errands after work (because I actually finished on time, holla!), I began to understand why task-switching is so addictive. On the outside, busy people look efficient and on top of their game: They take calls as they're grocery shopping or reply to emails in the waiting room. They meet a coworker for lunch, and in the process, switch between their latte and last-minute project tweaks. You see these people and think to yourself, "I want to be important too!" You start jonesing for the opportunity to work on seven different things at once. However, I remind myself that the illusion becomes easier to resist once you've written an assignment twice.
As the work week came to a close, I found myself getting to know my trigger points and learning how to counteract them. Discovering that my task-switching addiction is harder to resist as the day wears on, for example, has given me an even bigger incentive to finish my most important tasks first thing in the morning. Also, making plans for the next day before I go to bed (when I'm pooped and my ambition's running low) prevents me from creating one of those impossibly ambitious to-do lists that only Beyoncé could finish. Bonus: When I wake up with a clear direction already in mind, it makes it that much easier to stay on (one) track.
Because Fridays are typically lighter in scope, I had an easier time single-tasking. The day consisted of tying loose ends, getting the ball rolling on next week's assignments, and finalizing as much of the following week's schedule as is possible for a freelancer. Since I didn't wear out my mind with endless task-switching, I was better equipped to deal with interruptions head on and get back to my regularly scheduled programming.
Days 6 and 7: The Weekend
One of the hardest things to adjust to over the weekend was sitting down to watch the pile of TV shows that I'd missed during the week-and only watching TV. No joke, it was something I hadn't done since the '90s. There was no laptop in front of me, no texting on the side, and it was glorious. I also ditched all tech before visiting with family and friends, which quashed that annoying post-work guilt that pressures you into thinking you should be doing "more" with your time-and ultimately, causes you to waste it, as you're not really working or resting.
Did I get more done this week by single-tasking? Heck yes, and in a much shorter time. Did it make my workweek less stressful? Not so much. As someone who's been a chronic multitasker since the womb, I probably should've started smaller-say, one hour of single-tasking a day-and worked my way up to a regular practice. But even with the midweek craziness that went down, I did end the week satisfied with what I'd accomplished and felt more centered than ever. So much so, that I wrote this entire article without checking my email. Or looking at my phone. Or scrolling through my Twitter feed. You know, like a baller.