The art of single-tasking - a smiling woman reading a book outside

The Art of Single-Tasking

(How to Focus in a Multitasking World)

We’ve all heard the term multitasking, but have you ever considered the benefits of single-tasking? This idea isn’t new, but it’s gaining momentum based on what research tells us about multitasking.

The term multitasking has been around for decades. It was coined in relation to computers and evolved over the years to apply to people. At some point in the 90s or early aughts, we were convinced that multitasking was the way to show productivity. More recently, however, research has shown how absolutely wrong that is.

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We find ourselves juggling countless responsibilities, commitments, and distractions, often leaving us feeling overwhelmed and scattered. The multitasking culture we live in has made it seem like we must accomplish everything simultaneously to keep up with the pace of life. But there is a better way:

The art of single-tasking

By intentionally focusing on one task at a time, you can reclaim your attention, improve  your productivity, and restore a sense of calm and control to your daily life. I’m going to talk about practical strategies to help you cultivate the art of single-tasking and experience its benefits.

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Recognizing the Pitfalls of Multitasking

Multitasking may appear tempting, but it comes with a myriad of negative effects on our attention and cognitive performance. When we engage in multiple tasks simultaneously, our ability to focus and concentrate on each individual task diminishes.

Our brains can’t really concentrate on multiple tasks simultaneously. Multitasking is actually repeated switching between tasks. Our attention becomes fragmented, leading to decreased accuracy, reduced productivity, and increased likelihood of errors.

Studies have also shown that multitasking negatively impacts our working memory. The constant switching between tasks puts a strain on our cognitive resources, making it difficult to retain and process information effectively. This can lead to difficulties in problem-solving, decision-making, and overall cognitive functioning.

Challenges for single-tasking

Distractions pose obstacles to our efforts to practice single-tasking. The digital age has brought about an endless stream of notifications, emails, and social media updates, constantly vying for our attention. These interruptions disrupt our focus, make it harder to stay on task, and contribute to a perpetual cycle of multitasking.

In addition, other external factors, such as noise or clutter can create an environment that is conducive to multitasking rather than single-tasking. It takes conscious effort to create a space that supports deep focus and minimizes distractions.

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The Power of Single-Tasking

Single-tasking, as the name implies, is the practice of focusing on one task at a time with deliberate intention and full presence. It involves devoting your attention and energy to a single activity, allowing you to engage in a state of deep focus and flow.

Unlike multitasking, which spreads our attention thin across various tasks, single-tasking emphasizes the importance of giving our undivided attention to each task, one at a time.

Characteristics of single-tasking include prioritizing one task over others, eliminating distractions, setting clear goals and intentions, and engaging in mindful awareness of the present moment.

Benefits of single-tasking

The benefits of single-tasking are many, particularly for neurodivergent women who struggle with executive functioning. By practicing single-tasking, you can experience a significant improvement in your attentional focus and the quality of your work.

When you devote your full attention to a single task, you are better able to immerse yourself in the details, think critically, and problem-solve effectively.

Single-tasking allows you to allocate your cognitive resources efficiently. By reducing the cognitive load associated with task-switching, you can optimize your working memory, enhance your ability to absorb and process information, and improve your overall cognitive performance. This, in turn, leads to greater productivity, higher accuracy, and a sense of accomplishment.

Numerous studies have provided compelling evidence supporting the advantages of single-tasking over multitasking. Research consistently shows that attempting to multitask leads to decreased productivity and increased errors. On the other hand, single-tasking has been found to improve efficiency, task completion time, and overall performance.

Studies have also demonstrated that single-tasking enhances our ability to learn and retain information. When we give our undivided attention to a task, we encode information more effectively in our memory, making it easier to recall later.

This is particularly relevant for neurodivergent people who may benefit from focused engagement.

Single-tasking has also been shown to reduce stress levels and increase overall well-being. By embracing a more mindful and intentional approach to our tasks, we create a sense of control and purpose. This can contribute to a greater sense of satisfaction, reduced feelings of overwhelm, and improved mental and emotional resilience.

The art of single-tasking - stressed woman surrounded by a bunch of hands giving her things

Cultivating a Single-Tasking Mindset and Habits

If everything I’ve said so far sounds good, you might be wondering how the heck you’re supposed to pull this off when so many people still think multitasking is a good thing.

As usual, it starts with mindset. You need to shift how you think (and really believe it); otherwise, you’ll slip back into your old habits.

Shifting mindset from multitasking to single-tasking

The first step in cultivating a single-tasking mindset is to make single-tasking a deliberate and conscious choice. Recognize that multitasking is not a badge of honor but rather a hindrance to our productivity and well-being (regardless of what the media says).

Instead of caving to the societal pressure to constantly multitask, embrace the power of prioritization. Identify the most important task and commit to completing it before moving on to the next. By reframing single-tasking as a strategic and intentional approach, you can empower yourself to make mindful choices that optimize your attention and productivity.

Deep work and undivided attention

Deep work, a term coined by productivity expert Cal Newport, refers to the state of intense focus and uninterrupted concentration on a single task.

Create an environment that supports deep work by minimizing distractions. Silence notifications, close unnecessary tabs on your computer, and find a quiet space where you can fully immerse yourself in the task at hand. Set clear boundaries with others, communicating your need for uninterrupted focus during designated periods.

Practice sustained attention by setting specific time blocks dedicated to single tasks. During these blocks, resist the urge to switch to other tasks or check your phone. Train your brain to stay present and engaged, allowing yourself to enter a state of flow where your productivity and creativity flourish.

Establishing habits

Habits and rituals can improve your ability to single-task on a daily basis. Start by creating a structured routine that includes designated periods for specific tasks. This helps your brain anticipate and prepare for focused engagement, making it easier to transition into single-tasking mode.

Incorporate mindfulness techniques into your single-tasking practices. Begin each task with a moment of mindful awareness, taking a few deep breaths and setting an intention for your focused attention.

Break large tasks into smaller, manageable chunks. This allows you to focus on one subtask at a time, reducing feelings of overwhelm and increasing your sense of progress. Celebrate each completed subtask (get that dopamine hit), reinforcing the satisfaction that comes from dedicated, single-tasking effort.

Be patient with yourself as you navigate the shift from multitasking to a more intentional and focused approach. For many neurodivergent people, this is extra hard because you respond to stimuli everywhere and sometimes have a hard time filtering it out.

With practice and consistency, you will develop a heightened ability to concentrate and accomplish tasks with greater efficiency.

The art of single-tasking - a smiling woman reading a book outside

Managing Internal Distractions

As I mentioned in the previous section, if you’re neurodivergent, distractions are hard for you to filter. Internal distractions are even more difficult because you can’t close your brain like you can close a door to block interruptions.

Techniques for managing internal distractions

Internal distractions, such as wandering thoughts and daydreaming, can significantly impede our ability to single-task effectively. Here are some techniques to help you manage these distractions and maintain focus:

Thought Awareness: Practice becoming aware of your thoughts as they arise. Observe them without judgment and gently guide your attention back to the task at hand. Recognize that thoughts will come and go, but you have the power to choose where to direct your attention.

Task Anchoring: Use a physical or mental anchor to keep your focus grounded. This could be a specific object on your desk, a mantra, or a visual reminder. Whenever you notice your mind drifting, return to your anchor to recenter your attention.

Thought Labeling and Letting Go: If you find yourself caught in a cycle of distracting thoughts, label them as “thinking” and let them go. Acknowledge their presence but do not engage with them further. Redirect your attention back to your task with intention.

Practicing mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that can help cultivate present-moment awareness and enhance attentional control. By incorporating mindfulness into your single-tasking routine, you can better manage internal distractions. The following strategies are easy to implement and only take a few minutes but can have lasting effects.

Breath Awareness: Take a few moments to focus on your breath. Notice the sensation of each inhalation and exhalation. Whenever your mind wanders, gently guide your attention back to the breath, anchoring yourself in the present moment.

Body Scan: Engage in a body scan meditation to bring your attention to different parts of your body, starting from the top of your head down to your toes. This practice enhances body awareness and helps ground your attention in the present.

Sensory Awareness: Tune into your senses and notice the details of your immediate environment. Engage with the sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations around you. This anchors your attention in the present and reduces the likelihood of mind wandering.

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Addressing internal barriers

Internal barriers, such as lack of motivation, emotional fluctuations, and task aversion, can hinder our ability to stay focused. Self-reflection and self-regulation techniques can help address these barriers and cultivate sustained attention:

Goal Setting: Clearly define your goals and intentions for each task. Remind yourself of the purpose and significance of the task to maintain focus and overcome internal resistance.

Emotion Regulation: Acknowledge and address any emotional states that may be affecting your focus. Practice techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or journaling to regulate your emotions and create a more conducive internal environment for single-tasking.

Time Management: Break tasks into manageable chunks and set specific time limits for each. Use timers or productivity apps to help you stay on track. Take short breaks between tasks to refresh your mind and maintain focus throughout the day.

Building Attentional Stamina and Resilience

Building attentional stamina is crucial for effectively practicing single-tasking. Here are techniques to help strengthen your focus and endurance:

Pomodoro Technique: Using this technique you work for a focused period (e.g., 25 minutes) followed by a short break (e.g., 5 minutes). If 25 minutes is too long for your current ability to focus, start with a smaller time block. Gradually increase the work intervals and challenge yourself to sustain focus for longer periods.

Task Chunking: Divide larger tasks into smaller, manageable chunks. Set a specific time limit for each chunk and commit to staying fully engaged during that time. As you build confidence and endurance, gradually increase the duration of these focused chunks.

Attention Training: Engage in activities that specifically train your attention, such as mindfulness meditation or attentional exercises. These practices enhance your ability to sustain focus and resist distractions, ultimately building your attentional stamina.

Practicing self-compassion and patience

Developing attentional stamina is a journey that requires self-compassion and patience.

Embrace Imperfection: Recognize that building attentional stamina is a process, and setbacks or distractions are a normal part of the journey. Be kind to yourself and avoid self-judgment when your focus wavers. Treat each moment as an opportunity to practice and learn.

Celebrate Progress: Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements along the way. Give yourself credit for the efforts you make, no matter how small. Recognize that even incremental progress is significant and builds over time.

Self-Care and Rest: Remember that attentional stamina is not just about pushing yourself relentlessly. Take breaks, practice self-care, and prioritize rest. Restorative activities, such as exercise, adequate sleep, and relaxation techniques, support your cognitive functioning and help maintain focus.

Mindful Awareness: Cultivate mindful awareness of your attentional patterns and tendencies. Notice when your focus wanes or when you need to recharge. Listen to your needs and respond with self-compassion, adjusting your approach as necessary.

In a world that glorifies multitasking, neurodivergent women often find themselves struggling with executive functioning and attentional demands. However, by embracing single-tasking, they can reclaim their focus and productivity. By adopting the approaches discussed here and embracing deliberate focus, you can navigate a multitasking world with confidence. Remember, in a world that pulls you in a thousand directions, the art of single-tasking is your key long-term productivity.

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