The incredibly powerful art of solo-tasking

In The Loft this month we’ve been working really hard at improving our productivity, both in our businesses and in our...


In The Loft this month we’ve been working really hard at improving our productivity, both in our businesses and in our lives. Through that work, we’ve addressed things such as procrastination, time-awareness and time-management, and even personal boundaries. And today I want to talk about solo-tasking.

Now, as much as being busy is almost worshiped in our society today, the busyness that comes from multi-tasking is one of those things – and I’ve come to realize also one of those myths – that can not only harm you, but can really hurt your productivity too.

Multi-tasking can have devastating effects on how well you can focus on a task, on the way you can pay attention to things around you, on your memory, and even on the way you feel present and grounded in your life. The problem lies with the fact that multi-tasking – as an activity – affects the brain.

The brain has the capacity to learn new things all the time, and is super quick at doing so. This plasticity of the brain is a wonderful thing, it means that we don’t just stop training our brain when we’re young, but that we can keep doing so throughout our lives. The downside of that is that our brain will be affected by what we do with it, will learn from what we feed it, and will always try to become better at whatever task we ask of it.

And when multi-tasking is concerned, although it sounds great that our brain would become really good at it, that’s not such a great thing.

With the technological and media changes that we’ve experienced in the last decennia, or even only in the last couple of years, we’ve all collectively been training our brain to deal with information overload, media overload, and constant distractions. The problem is: there simply is too much stimulation! And we’ve become addicted to it. And I mean really addicted.

There are more and more devices in our lives, and all of these devices have more and more things that you can do with them. Pretty different than the fax machine of the eighties, or even the basic cell phone of twenty years ago. With that one you could just call someone. Yeah I know, sounds crazy!

But that’s not all. Not only can today’s devices do a million things, through these devices, we’ve also increased the amount of information we’re processing each day.

And consuming more media like that is not only addictive, it has an important side-effect.

Ask yourself this: Where does all that time come from, that we’re now spending on consuming media? Because it has to come from somewhere, right? We don’t have more time now than we had before, so who or what is suffering from our media addiction?

According to Clifford Nass, a former professor of communication at Stanford University, and a renowned authority on human-computer interaction, media has started taking time away from our human relationships. And when you think of it, it makes sense. When was the last time you had dinner with friends or family, without at least once checking your cell phone, or having someone else at the table do so? When was the last time you went to the beach, for a walk, or stepped on an airplane, without your tablet or cell phone in your hand?

Because we want to keep our relationships, and don’t want to give up on them all together for the sake of media, professor Nass argues, we double book our time: we connect with others, while consuming media. Bam!

There it is again: multi-tasking, or as I’d like to call it, attention deficit brain training.

But once again, that’s not all. We don’t only consume media while we’re with others, we’re constantly consuming at least a few kinds of media at the same time, whatever it is we’re doing. Obvious ones are reading or studying while listening to music. But there are other, more challenging ones. Like watching a movie while checking your text messages, your Facebook feed, or your Instagram. And no, these are not exceptions, they’re fast becoming the rule. I know, I’ve been there!

Unfortunately, multi-tasking doesn’t stop there. Multi-tasking not only affects the brain and trains you to want to be stimulated constantly. It doesn’t only steal time away from your friends, and loved ones. We’re constantly asked to multi-task in our businesses or at work too. It’s just part of the game.

Yet skipping around from task to task – although you might feel like you’re in control and on top of the world – actually decreases your effectiveness in performing the tasks you’re working on.

The truth is, when you’re constantly multi-tasking, you’re probably much less productive than you think. And the reason for this is primarily due to what is called the attention switching cost you have to pay when constantly going from one task to another, and another, and another, and back again.

Twenty-eight. That’s the percentage of time lost on average, due to interruptions, and the recovery time needed to get back to what you were initially working on. This means that on average, when you multi-task, you lose about two hours of productivity per day. And that’s not me saying, but neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, author of the incredibly interesting The Organized Mind.

So there you have it. Multi-tasking affects your brain, makes you crave more and more stimulation, steals time away from those you love, and makes you less efficient in your business or at work… Time to stop, and come back to your senses. Or to the present moment. However you want to call it.

Time to start solo-tasking.

Choosing to be present in the moment by only addressing one thing at a time in your life and business, is not some woo-woo bullshit for modern-day hippies. Solo-tasking is the only way to achieve real productivity, to wean your brain off the information overload drug, and to reconnect with others and yourself in a meaningful way.

And that, my dear multi-tasking reader, goes for everyone. And can be done by anyone. Simply…

Slow down.

Turn off all distractions.

Focus on one thing at a time.

There’s nothing more to it. And the benefits will be extraordinary.

To me solo-tasking is the essence of productivity. It makes so much sense to focus on one thing at a time, rather than constantly switching attention between tasks. The benefits, from my own experience, are incredible. When I solo-task I have:

Less stress.

More awareness for the task at hand.

Less inner chatter.

Less anxiety.

More peace of mind.

More tasks done, in less time.

A greater sense of wellbeing.

More time to do the things I love.

And so much more…

I want to invite you to give it a try. Today or tomorrow, look at your to-do list, and identify one thing you’ll solo-task. I promise you, you’ll be surprised of the impact this will have, not only on the task itself, but on you as well.

And in the comments below, do let me know how the solo-tasking is going. I’d love to know!

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