In the many workshops/lectures I have given about productivity and focus as well as the coaching work I do with individual clients I always take time to dispel the myth of multitasking. Keep in mind that when I speak of multitasking I am talking about doing multiple tasks that require some form of cognitive reasoning. I don’t take breathing, digestion, walking at a leisurely pace and other “automatic” processes into account.
The truth is that true multitasking is a myth, as we can only focus our attention on one task at a time. When we think we are multitasking we are actually switching our attention back n forth between different thought processes.
In 2009 a group of researchers at Stanford University released a study on the subject. Their researched showed that people who multitask regularly, constantly switching their attention between tasks, become chronically distracted and have a difficult time focusing, memorizing and organizing information. Eventually they get distracted by anything and everything. Re-focusing on different tasks cost time and it seems it also has a toll on our cognitive abilities.
Even though I know this I realized a couple of days ago, while reflecting on my own workflow, that I still do this to some degree. I eat while working, check emails in meetings, text while biking…etc.
I recognized that not only did this make me distracted but I also enjoyed the singular tasks less. I kept my attention away from the here and now, unable to fully enjoy the moment.
I also noticed that lately I found myself in one of the following situations:
- After having a conversation with a friend I couldn’t recall what we were talking about.
- Walking with intention into the kitchen realizing I have no idea why I went there in the first place.
- Trying to recall what I did yesterday by having to check my agenda.
I take my work very seriously and I always make sure I am completely focused when talking to a client or a group, but in my personal life I sometimes let myself get distracted. I believe one of the reasons is that I have primed myself for short, bitesized pieces of information by reading feeds, lists and posts more than books and in-depth articles. With this newfound awareness I am changing these habits, but what about taking it one step further?
After reading an article by Nancy Christie about doing one thing at a time, I decided to try it for a full day. For 24 hours I would focusing my attention on each task fully. No eating behind my computer, no texting while seeing friends, no Facebook while working…etc. To instead award each task my undivided attention and singular importance for a full day. This day was yesterday and these are some of my reflections.
- It was truly an amazing day and I had plenty of time to get the things I wanted to do done. But the day was not only about productivity. More importantly I tried this experiment because I wanted to feel what it would do to my sense of the moment.
I am happy to say that everything I did felt more imbued with spirit & presence. Food tasted better when I didn’t eat while working, checking emails or scrolling my feed. While spending time with a friend in the evening and even during daily work meetings I felt more connected to the people around me, because I didn’t divide my attention by checking my phone or thinking about the next activity.
- Because of my determination to focus on one thing at a time, I also noticed how some daily activities were left out because when I had to prioritize my focus, some things were simply not worthy of my attention. It was especially clear around the (ab)use of my phone. Normally my phone accompanies me nearly everywhere, but when I had to choose between eating or checking my phone (as opposed to doing both) the phone became much less important.
- Time seemed to slow down and I really felt like I had all the time in the world. The day was rich and the sense of urgency disappeared because I knew if I focused on only one thing at a time I would get around to everything I wanted to, and I did!
I thought a day like this would be quite challenging, but to my great delight, this was not the case. In the first few hours I had to remind myself of the mission a couple of times, but the habit stuck really quickly and today I don’t want to go back to a fragmented reality.
I can highly recommend trying this one-day challenge, if not to change your whole concept of time, at least to make you aware of your triggers. Any change process starts with awareness and as you become aware of the habits that are not aligned with your values there is no turning back.
Doing one thing at a time might be the most basic habit of presence & focus, yet one of the most powerful I have tried next to meditation. Imagine living a meditative state. It is the easiest thing you can do to create a massive increase in your ability to focus.
Go on…try it yourself! Do only one thing at a time. I dare you =)