Become a Master of Single-Tasking if You Want to Get Ahead

You wake up to your phone’s alarm clock, scroll through the morning headlines, get ready for work listening to Spotify, read emails on the way to the office, and send a WhatsApp message to your mom. Sometimes you tweet something as you read the news, prepare spreadsheets, compose emails, and dive into Google Analytics. You might send a text to your roommate, watch a YouTube video someone shared, forward an interesting article to your team, and check a notification while on Skype with a lead. You’ll bookmark websites to refer to later as you check your Facebook feed, scroll through more headlines, and post something to Instagram.

If this sounds at all, even the tiniest bit, like a typical day for you, then it’s reasonable to assume you think you’re the king of multitasking.

When in fact you are not.

Everyone gets distracted.  You’ll keep an irrelevant browser open as you are typing an important email.  You’ll check a notification the second it appears while weeks deep into a report.  But you may not call it multitasking – just switching tasks.  Yet, when you do, it does not contribute positively to your productivity.

We are sure this has happened to you.  You’re working on one thing, become distracted, and then completely forget what you were doing not even a second later. Collecting yourself to get back into your groove becomes a task in itself —  and it’s probably not entirely unusual to find yourself fifteen items deep into some listicle that caught your eye.

Here’s the problem: many of our productive tasks sit dangerously close to our distractions. Imagine if everything productive that you needed to do was isolated on its own —  that you could send an important email without your attention being redirected to a ONE-DAY-ONLY travel promotion to Cancun or your friend’s terribly unimportant Snapchat. Imagine how much easier it would be to just get stuff done.

Of course, someone is going to disagree and say, “What? Do you have no self-control?”

But the Internet is designed to be distracting. Its best content is created mostly by people cleverer than you, armed with a much deeper understanding of why you click on things.  Its suggestions are often alarmingly spot on. That’s why it’s no wonder everyone thinks that he can do ten things at once. Multi-tasking is this mythical productivity thief produced by the availability of instant gratification. It just feels so good.

The problem is that we believe this instant access makes us more efficient.  Truth is, we instead sacrifice efficiency by trying to do more than we should at one time.  Multi-tasking, or switching tasks, is making you noticeably less productive.

As author Clay Shirky, an expert on the social and economic effects of the internet, puts it:

“Multi-tasking moves the pleasure of procrastination inside the period of work.”

The belief that multi-tasking is good has fooled us all.

So what do we do? Well, try doing one thing at a time.

It’s an obscure concept - the thought of rejecting the many things we could be doing all at the same time.  Simply writing a report instead of simultaneously scrolling through Instagram? Listening to a webinar while not checking emails? Absurd. We could be doing so much more all at once.

But consider this: you an effort to single-task, and you get a lot more done when you do. When you get sidetracked - distracted by anything from an irrelevant text or something work-related - you lose momentum.  You lose speed. You forget where you were or how to get started again.

If people continue to think that they can run several apps simultaneously while they listen in on a meeting, they’re eventually going to get caught. Fierce multi-taskers don’t hide behind it well.  Their half-finished and unfocused work shows. Their lack of 100% attention to detail is obvious.

So if you’re the person with Skilled Multi-Tasker as a LinkedIn skill (an option, believe it or not), you should reconsider whether your ability to do 10 irrelevant things at the same time is actually valuable for an employer. And if you disagree with this concept of single-tasking, take a look at your last five tasks and evaluate them. Is it clear that you gave 100 percent of your attention and time?

If you are a manager, you should be asking every prospective employee how capable they are at single-tasking. How easily can he/she stay focused on one thing from beginning to end? How much time will he give toward a single task before he gets distracted or seek out distractions? How much effort will she devote to your period of work?

We’re in an age where information isn’t going anywhere.  There will always be more and more of it. Honing in on your self-control (or lack thereof) is certainly part of the solution, but understanding the vast difference between multi-tasking and high-quality productivity is the first step to getting ahead. Start focusing on single tasks today, right now. Your work quality will improve and the right people will notice.

Adapted from an article by Alanna Harvey for