Single-tasking vs. Multi-tasking

I was reading an article today about minimalism when I came across a line about multitasking. I immediately had to pause. Does multitasking even fit in the same sentence as minimalism? I’m not so sure it does.

When I hear the term multitasking, I think of the big to-do list I once kept and how I desperately tried each day to check off as many boxes as possible, in the shortest time possible. I think of lunches spent at my computer, flights where I missed meeting interesting travelers because I shared a seat with Microsoft Office, and the oh-so-many things that I missed hearing as I checked my email during a conference call. Multitasking screams of increased productivity and well, minimalism is pretty much the opposite of that.

Joshua Becker at writes:

Our world lives at a feverish pace. We are too hurried, too rushed, and too stressed. We work long, passionate hours to pay the bills, but fall deeper into debt. We rush from one activity to another—even multitasking along the way—but never seem to get everything done.

Minimalism slows down life and frees us from this modern hysteria to live faster. It finds freedom to disengage. It seeks to keep only the essentials. It seeks to remove the frivolous and keep the significant. And in doing so, it values the intentional endeavors that add value to life.

Personally, I never liked life in the fast lane. No matter how many tasks I tried to complete at once, I was never able to gain any free time of my own. I chose minimalism to give myself an out. I wanted to spend quality time with my family and quality time doing the things that I wanted to do – including choosing work that I enjoy.

My work now – albeit enjoyable – is also deadline driven and I could easily find myself in a multitasking frenzy if it were not for my commitment to single-tasking and minimalism. Single-tasking is not an easy shift in today’s modern work culture. It’s slower, it’s more methodical, and it requires a lot of focus. It’s also good for you.

The human brain is set up for single-tasking. In fact, multitasking forces the brain to toggle back and forth between tasks, focusing only for short periods of time on each one. Multitasking exhausts the brain and chronic multitaskers have even been shown to have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can cause memory loss. I don’t know about you but I want to remember as much of my life as possible for as long as possible.

So how does single-tasking work in a telecommuting environment?

The To-Do List: I make a list of the top 5 things that I need to do in work week and I assign them a day. Monday might be dedicated to updating our website while Thursday is spent on preparing supporting documents for a grant proposal. Aside from normal workday processes – like checking email or answering the phone – the assigned task is the only task done on that day. If a task gets added midweek, I reprioritize the list but still, I only work on one task per day. My job consists of larger tasks that each take hours, sometimes days, to complete. If your job is comprised of smaller tasks, you may want to assign them in hourly blocks instead.

Checking Email: I disabled the pop-up email reminder in Outlook and I only check email every 2 hours (for a total of 4 times during the work day). When I check email, I triage them. If they apply to what I’m working on, I use them. If they don’t, I file them appropriately. Do I ever miss important things? No. Do I get more done by not being distracted? Absolutely! I also DO NOT have my work email on my phone. A lot of my coworkers do but our organization doesn’t pay for our cell phones and quite frankly, our work may be life-affirming but it’s not life-saving so there’s no need for me to receive work emails when I’m not at work.

Lunch: I take a lunch break every day – away from my computer. Stepping away from work for a while enhances creativity and being present (mindful) during lunch allows me to enjoy what I’m eating (as well as make better food choices).

Setting work hours: As a full-time remote employee, I am required to work 35 hours per week. My employer has no stipulation on how those hours are allocated (with the exception of our weekly staff meeting). I tend to schedule my days 8 AM to 4 PM (with an hour lunch break). On occasion, I flex my time around an appointment or to accommodate another activity (particularly if it is a sunny day and I want to take a walk) but I always make a clear distinction between work and home. I only work 35 hours per week, during which I make myself focus only on job related tasks. At first it was hard to overcome the urge to do a household chore (like laundry) alongside work but now that I’ve been single-tasking for a while, I am at peace with the laundry pile. I know it will have its time too.

Because this is real life, there inevitably will be distractions during the work day. Personal phone calls, a knock at the door, or your significant other asking a question. I don’t have a solution for dealing with these things other than to take them as they come and don’t let them deter you more than momentarily from your task. Personally, I get frustrated, sometimes even derailed, after more than a few distractions on the same day and I know this is an area I need to work on.

So which one are you – a single-tasker or a multitasker? What steps have you taken to be more focused and mindful of what you’re doing with your day?

3 thoughts on “Single-tasking vs. Multi-tasking

  1. I find that I get far more out of my life when I single task. When I am focused on more than one thing at once, I’m not really focused on either. I am much more present when I do one thing at a time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I find duo-tasking most efficient (dominant and subordinate task alternating) – I can concentrate longer without tedium. Creative, never have been a list maker, and rely on visual memory. Fighting to stick with one task wouldn’t work for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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