Why Single Tasking Is The New Multitasking

As much as 40% of productivity is lost when multi-tasking.

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There are moments in time which will permanently stay etched in my brain.

The excruciating instance when upon arriving at the airport check-in desk, I’m informed that I’ve missed my flight. 

I have a vision of my family members waiting for me at the destination whilst I awaited the prospect of being stationed overnight at Gatwick airport. Despite heading to the customer services advisor who listened to my plea graciously, there was no other solution than buying another (very expensive) ticket.

Immediately after the effects of the shock have sunk in, I am forced to ask the dreaded question;

Why did I arrive at the airport 3 hours too late to board my flight?

There was only one culprit.


For a few weeks I had been juggling a multitude of tasks at the same time, and although I had seemed to be functioning at an optimal level, my system internally was losing efficiency. The same way my MacBook Pro slows down when there are too many applications open at the same time and eventually defects in performance.

Even though I teach the art of presence, I had slipped up this time. I’m human after all.

Distractions are everywhere, and it has never been easier to Jump between tasks.  Responding to notifications whilst sending an email, cooking the supper in the midst of speaking to your children whilst being interrupted by your calendar alarm reminding you that there is yet another task on your to-do list.

Even as you read this article, you might have one eye on the TV, whilst checking your Facebook, Instagram and texting on Whatsapp. The average person checks their email 74 times a day and switches tasks on their computer 566 times a day.

A 2007 article in “Bloomberg Businessweek” asserts the following:

“Distractions cost U.S. businesses $650 billion annually. If deep concentration is continuously interrupted by phone calls and email messages, you may not be able to regain the direction of a project, as you may forget a thought or solution. A confused person is not focusing on the task at hand and is less likely to complete assignments satisfactorily and on time.”

This explains the fiasco that was my airport trip; and although it did not cost $650 billion to correct, it still had a high personal cost. This is what can happen when we attend to various tasks at the same time.

Are you a seasoned multi-tasker?

Most people are.

The symptoms of this include scrolling down your e-mails whilst you’ve got your mum on the phone, typing a document whilst you discuss the day with your partner, listening to a podcast whilst you’re emptying the dishwasher and checking through your daily schedule whilst logging on to Facebook to check your friends holiday pictures.

Although this process is frequently referred to as multitasking, you’re not actually doing all of those things at the same time. Rather, you’re rapidly bouncing back and forth between them like a ping pong ball. Meanwhile depleting your neural resources on the go.

We mistakenly believe it raises our productivity level as it makes sure things get done with the least investment of time. But it’s simply too much for the brain to handle, and is exhausting and disorienting over a period of time.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, with the rise of personal productivity devices, multitasking was embraced to keep pace with the new speed of business. We then boasted on our job applications how we could juggle and complete tasks at the same time. Multitaskers were seen as high-performing and efficient employees.

The truth is that multitasking impairs our work by slowing us down and we tend to make more mistakes as the brain is pulled into different directions. Although it seems as if you’re getting more done, all the tasks are done in a sloppy fashion.

So Why is multitasking so seductive?

Switching between tasks staves away boredom as we need constant stimulation, but it drains cognitive resources making you prone to mistakes. Your brain has a limited capacity and as much as 40% of productivity is lost by going back and forth, and the quality deteriorates as the focus is diminished.

One of my coaching clients stated that he couldn’t eat his breakfast without being sucked into reading his e-mails at the same time. He experienced it like being enraptured by the talons of a seductress tempting him into its lair. What he needed to understand was that he was choosing to switch on his e-mails and read them whilst eating, he wasn’t sucked into anything.

Yet reaching for his inbox causes a surge of endogenous opioids to the reward-seeking parts of the brain. 

It feels good to indulge in distractions.

Each time you respond to an email, post a Tweet, or send an instant message, you get a shot of hormones directly to the pleasure centre of the brain and this can be incredibly addictive.

I worked with a CEO a few years ago who was so incredibly stressed through constant multitasking. He was under the illusion that unless he was involved in numerous tasks, it would translate into ‘I’m not successful and a failure’. This was driving his actions, but he lacked presence and was suffering health problems as a result of this. He had attributed slowing down with a negative meaning which had no substance whatsoever.

During the commencement of our work together I suggested he take just one afternoon a week as time off to unwind and focus on one thing.

He thought the idea was ludicrous, but he trusted me and began to block out each Tuesday afternoon. During the first week, he decided to take his mother out for the afternoon and found that he actually enjoyed it, he then chose to go to the gym or to simply sit in a coffee shop and read the paper.

His business didn’t suffer; in fact just the opposite. He started to have creative ideas as he was relaxed. He started spending time with his wife without checking on his phone constantly and his relationship began to improve.

His mind and schedule were no longer packed to the brim, he was happier and could think clearly and this spilt over into his business.

Why do you think the best ideas emerge when you’re in the shower or whilst you’re on holiday? The mind is relaxed, functioning at its optimum level and open for whatever should arrive.

Practice the art of single-tasking.

What could you delegate to someone else? 

Outsource some of what you can, and then spend an hour a day focused on just one task; during this time, shut down the Internet and phone if you have to. This will give you reflective time to attend to this with no interruptions. Clean and organise your work area to eliminate distractions. 

Ask yourself which task deserves attention at this moment? Which one is deserving of your time and energy. Surely not all things are a priority or an emergency, but by doing just one thing, you are being at your most productive and creative.

Say the word ‘No’ more often and let go of people pleasing. Refuse a request at least once a week, simplify and skim away what will add time and energy. Be more selective what you say ‘Yes’ to.

Try setting a timer and keeping time on each task whilst keeping only one thing open on your computer which will prevent you from switching from one site to the next, preventing the loss of focus as you do so.

Practice increasing your presence by meditating for 5-10 minutes a day as this short amount of time will allow you to breathe and pace yourself.   You will be far better company to be around, and your projects will be churned out with more quality.

Become more present when spending time with your partner, whilst listening to a podcast, in conversation with a client or listening to your children when they arrive home from school, eager to tell you about their day.

By making the ritual of single-tasking part of your everyday life, you are prioritising your wellbeing, and you are acknowledging that there is more to life than churning through a to-do list. 

After all, this is why we’re on the path to a simpler life, isn’t it?

More simple pleasures. More little joys. More mindful intention.

Had I not missed my flight, not only would this article not have been written; but I would not have had a huge nudge to take my own advice and re-focus on just one thing.  Only the next thing.

If this article resonated with you, you can read more chapters like these in my latest book ‘Look Inside: Stop Seeking Start Living’ available now on Amazon.

If you want to connect with me to share insights from this article, I would love to hear from you. 

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