One Thing at a Time

Multitasking reduces productivity. Choose your priorities and embrace them.

October 2020

Introduction

In 2005, while in the airport waiting to board a flight to Washington, D.C., I saw the late Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis nearby. A man approached, introduced himself and started telling Congressman Lewis about himself and his concerns about government. While talking, the man plucked a Blackberry from his belt and began checking and responding to email messages.  Congressman Lewis patiently listened and calmly watched the man multitask.[1]  

To what extent did this man advance his cause or show respect? Who is more important, the person in front of us or the one sending emails from afar? What is more important, doing two things at once or focusing on a priority project?

The world seems determined to manipulate our attention and encourage us to click, buy, like, forward or watch. These actions do more to spark emotions than to create value, meaning or a sense of accomplishment. How can we better flex our mental muscles?

First, Understand the Brain

Multitasking is a myth. A sliver of the population – jet fighter pilots, elite pianists or Formula One drivers – can seemingly parallel process. Only 2% of us have the ability to multitask.[2] In practice, our minds rapidly bolt back and forth between activities.

Second, attempts to multitask degrade our mental performance and reduce personal productivity (by up to 40%). Previous research describes the impacts as equal to a 10-point decline in IQ or about the same as pulling an all-nighter.[3] In short, multitasking reduces our intelligence, energy and ability to get things done well.

Finally, short-term memory is finite and perishable. Multitasking and ‘information overload’ swamp our working memory, which is our capacity to hold info we plan to use right away.[4] This includes remembering items to buy at the store, a person’s name at a party or a phone number that you plan to dial. Our brains max out at about four items.

Then Make Choices

While our brain can manage many things simultaneously, such as walking and chewing gum and hearing birds sing, it can only focus with intention on one at a time. Unload groceries now; scramble eggs later. Finish a project now; return emails later. Drive now; text later. Otherwise, we waste food, produce poor work and endanger others.

Multitasking is a failure to prioritize. It overvalues production and underappreciates how we add value, stay present or do quality work. As an alternative, choose to do a few things really well. 

We all recognize how our phones and social media are relentlessly addictive and all-consuming. They feed on our easily distracted minds. Put the phone (face) down and decide to focus attention for part of each day on one person or project at a time. Then make choices about how to organize your time to make this happen.  

Conclusion

We show what’s important by where we spend our time and place our attention. This starts with knowing who and what is important to you. By focusing on one thing at a time, something of your choosing, you increase the likelihood and create the conditions to enjoy better results.


[1] This story appears in Loving Trees is Not Enough in the chapter on cell phone and email etiquette. 

[2] In May 2014, The New Yorker published “Multitask Masters” by Maria Konnikova. The article detailed research by Dr. David Strayer on cognition and distracted driving. [My PSA: Please don’t text and drive!]

[3] “How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking” by Peter Bregman, May 20, 2010 in Harvard Business Review.

[4] The Swedish neuroscientist Dr. Torkel Klingberg details this research in his book The Overflowing Brain.

1 Comment

  1. Clear and to the point and has useful take home value.

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