Do you multi-task or uni-task?
Did you know the word “multi-task” didn’t even exist before 1965? That’s because it was developed to describe the functions of a computer, originally meaning “the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.” We are built to uni-task.
Over the years, as the value of overworking to prove your worth caught on with employers, the word multi-task became a badge of honor. Only, our brains are not set up to run like a CPU. In fact, studies have shown too much multi-tasking can lead to a decrease in gray matter in the brain affecting memory, attention span, and even leading to anxiety or depression.
But since society pushes and values multi-tasking, we forgot how to focus and uni-task. The truth is what we call “multi-tasking” is not actually doing more than one task at a time. It is switching from task to task. And every time we switch, we lose a little productive time, focus, and extra energy.
Experiments published in 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, found that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. And there is a lot of research supporting the idea that task switching not only increases the amount of time a task takes AND decreases the quality of work output.
But how in the world do we to complete our to-do list with uni-tasking when multi-tasking is what we know. Today I’m going to dive into how to uni-task and give some examples where multi-tasking could be used… but heads up, it’s not going to be when you’re working.
Uni-tasking is focusing on finishing one task at a time before moving on to the next. This allows you to finish a task or project quicker and typically with less error and higher quality of work.
If you can limit your distractions, schedule focused time to work in a quiet space, and tell those around you of the time and space you need, you too can successfully uni-task.
And this may feel super weird because for so long multi-tasking has been a shiny gold star. Something we brag about doing. Or expected of us as employees, team members, and parents.
And you might be freaking out a little thinking “wait, there is no way I can tackle everything on my to-do list without multi-tasking.” But remember…what you think is getting more done while task switching is actually causing you to lose time in between each switch. And those seconds and minutes add up. And the time it may take you to finish all those tasks may total more minutes or hours than it would if you knocked them out one by one.
As you re-train your brain to focus on just one task at a time, you’ll notice the time it takes you to complete tasks will be less. And the quality of your work output will increase.
On a daily basis, you will feel less anxiety from task switching. And a sense of accomplishment that the task is off your to-do list. You won’t need to bump it to tomorrow because it isn’t complete or you need to make corrections.
And taking less time to complete tasks and having less anxiety with your work makes for a happier home life. And more present mommy after work is done.
How to Uni-task instead of Multi-tasking
Ready to jump onboard the uni-tasking train??? Here’s how to start…
First, schedule specific times to work when you can focus on your priority tasks. This could be waking up early like I do to get my focused work in before my kids wake up. Or it could be when you have a spouse or sitter available to entertain your kids while you work. It could be an hour before the kids wake up and an hour after they go to bed. Just schedule that time when it can be quiet and you can focus.
Next, speaking of quiet and focus, try to limit as many distractions as you can. Turn off your phone notifications. Shut down your email. Turn off the TV. Shut the door. Whatever you have to do to get into a focused zone. Distractions also come in the way of clutter on your desk. Clear your work area so the pile of papers to file or unopened mail don’t pull your focus.
Finally, know the priority tasks you will work on during your focused work time. You can take time the night before to jot down a to-do list. Or have a printable list of ongoing tasks you do on the same days every week.
Give a listen to last week’s episode about the Pomodoro Technique to help you work in short, focused bursts. I have roughly 2 hours every my focused work…Which is (4) 25-minute Pomodoros with a 5-minute break between each. It is kind of amazing how much work you can do when you hunker down for 25 focused minutes.
Oh, and before I forget. There are certain circumstances when multi-tasking is less likely to affect your productivity. Save it for things like listening to a podcast while cooking dinner. Or watching TV while folding laundry. Listening to a book on tape while running. I’ll even do something like posting on social media while I’m waiting for my kids to finish their work. I use my focused time in the morning to write a great caption. Then all I have to do is copy/paste/post. Which is much less focused work while I’ve got my teaching hat on.
To start developing your uni-tasking skills, block out specific focused work time in your schedule tomorrow. It might be 30 minutes. It might be 4 hours (lucky you!) Regardless of the amount of time you have on your schedule, make sure you can work uninterrupted by family or co-workers. Turn off or put away any distractions that could pull your focus. And have a plan for the priority tasks you’d like to complete during your focused work time.