The Singular Power Of "One" – Debunking The Myth Of Multi-Tasking

“Multi-tasking” is part of the modern-day lexicon.  In spite of scientific evidence to the contrary, people who multi-task “well” continue to be applauded as truly accomplished magicians by those of us who struggle whenever too many things compete for our attention.

The Proof’s in the Pudding

The reality is that no one multi-tasks well. Of course, some are better at it than others, but everyone is always less effective when trying to accomplish more than one thing at a time.  There are plenty of readers who will object to this position and begin citing examples of multi-tasking efficiency.  To prove my point, try this simple exercise that I learned from David Crenshaw’s terrific book “The Myth of Multi-Tasking.”

  • Take out a piece of paper and a pencil or pen.
  •  Think of a longer word, like “impossible” which has 10 letters.
  •  On your paper create two lines of 10 dashes each, one over the other, like this:

____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____

____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____

  • Find someone to time you or time yourself.
  • When your timer says “Go!,” begin spelling the word “impossible” out on the top row while alternately indicating the number that letter represents in the word in the bottom row.  It’ll look like this mid-stream:

  I      M      P    ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____ ____

  1      2   ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____

  • When you’re done with the exercise on this first pass, jot down how many seconds it took you to perform it.
  • Now, setup the exercise exactly the same way as you did the first time, thus:

____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____

____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____

  • This time just write the word “impossible” out straight through sequentially on the top line, then write the corresponding numbers each letter represents straight through on the bottom line, so that mid-stream it looks like this:

  I      M      P      O      S     S    ____  ____  ____

____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____  ____

This is a fairly simple example of doing two things at once – spelling and numbering.  In the dozens of situations I’ve used this exercise it routinely takes people about twice as long to complete the first pass as it takes to complete the second pass through.  The reason is simple enough, you have to refocus your mind on a different activity each time you switch between spelling and numbering in the first pass, but you don’t incur that “switch cost” in the second pass.

Through Clarity Comes Focus

With the urban myth about multi-tasking debunked, we can now get down to business.  And that business is how to truly increase your productivity and, in so doing, increase your command over your workload and your sense of success when getting more done.  We all feel better when we get something done, so why not benefit from that result on the career side as well?

Attempts to multi-task negatively affect our ability to focus.  Focus is at the core of productivity and accomplishment.  The more we can focus, the more we get done. 

Achieving and maintaining a high level of focus in the modern workplace is difficult indeed.  Distractions and interruptions abound, many of them self-imposed.  My work with clients often starts with unlearning numerous bad work habits that actually reduce focus and productivity even though they were promoted as more efficient!  Let’s focus on those, if you’ll pardon the pun.

One is not the Loneliest Number

The exercise above points out that focusing on a singular task is more productive than trying to alternate focus between two tasks.  If you have fallen prey to the multi-tasking myth but are now ready to move to a higher level of productivity and success, these suggestions will help:

  • Identify TODAY’S One Thing.  Most of us have dozens of things on our to-do list with more coming in each day.  Of course, everything is an “emergency” with an “ASAP” deadline.  (Note, I have yet to find ASAP on any calendar, so I’m not sure how it can be a deadline, but that’s for another time.)  A simple way to retake command of your workload is to identify the ONE thing that you WILL get done TODAY.  You are determining that this is the very most important thing in your world for today.  Hold yourself to that commitment and start knocking things off your list that you’ve been “meaning to get to” now for days, weeks, and months.
  • One Thing At A Time.  This may be obvious, but if you want to increase your focus, then focus on only one thing at a time.  You can accomplish this by doing several things to your workspace.  First, clear a space on your desk (your whole desktop?) into which nothing but your one thing will reside while you work on it.   Move your computer monitor away from this space so that it’s not a distraction or, if your one thing is on your computer, minimize all other screens and turn OFF your new e-mail alert.  Finally, place your phone on Do Not Disturb and close your door.  Now, you can actually DO one thing at a time!  Of course, return voice mails and e-mails as soon as you come back online, but I’ll guarantee you that you’ll get that one thing done faster if you follow this simple procedure.
  • One More Thing.  At the end of each day right before you close everything up to go home do One More Thing.  One little thing – return an e-mail (ONE), a voice mail, put something away, send out a quick instruction.  If you do that every work day of the year, you will do over 200 more things this year than last!

Recalibrate Your Behavior to Regain Command

Over the last 10 to 15 years, the pace at which we receive information has grown in orders of magnitude.  The notion of multi-tasking arose as a method for handling all these inputs.  Unfortunately, we’re just not wired that way and attempts to accomplish more than one thing at a time actually reduce our productivity and increase our stress levels. 

Finding ways to increase our focus will not only increase our productivity, but it will return us to sense of command over our work and careers.  Give the suggestions above a try and I wish you the best of luck!

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