In today’s world of work, there’s often too much to do and not enough people to do it. So, we tend to work longer hours and try and pack more into each day. Many of us also have busy personal lives with responsibilities for childcare or elderly relatives, which adds to the challenge. This leads us to juggle different tasks at the same time. Of course, there are times when multitasking is useful and necessary. Sometimes we just need to get stuff done and the only way is to do more than one thing at a time. However, when we multitask our attention becomes switched between tasks, which research tells us can reduce productivity by up to 40%.
The habit of multitasking creeps into almost everything we do. The assumption is that if we’re not doing more than one thing at a time, we’re not working hard enough. But are we confusing quantity with quality? Many important tasks really require high quality and sustained attention, combined with mental clarity, for instance, solving a complex problem, writing a report, or planning a project.
Switching between tasks fragments our attention. We lose the thread, are more likely to make mistakes, are less productive, and increase our level of stress. Working in a perpetual rush, we end up feeling frustrated and dissatisfied, rarely finding the quality time and space to complete work we really feel proud of.
The various calls, messages, and alerts that arise during the day are just the most obvious interruptions to our attention. With mindfulness, we learn to become much more aware of how our mind wanders and disconnects our attention from what we’re doing. Our own wandering thoughts are the most powerful distraction of all and often the greatest challenge to maintaining focus on a task.
In mindfulness, doing one thing at a time is the skill of acting “one mindfully”. This means if we are walking, rather than drifting off in thought, sending our attention and awareness out to the movement of our body and the sights and sounds of the world around us. If we’re having a conversation, rather than rehearsing our response, focusing our attention on listening to what’s being said, with kindness and curiosity.
As you experiment with focusing on one thing at a time, you’ll notice that the habit of multitasking, including being distracted by automatic thoughts, soon takes over and that it’s surprisingly difficult. One useful tip is to focus on where the work gets done, where the action is. For instance, this could be where the knife peels the skin off the potato, where the brush touches the wall as you paint, or where the text appears on the screen, or your fingers touch the keys, as you type. Another tip is to take a brief pause at the end of each task before you consciously begin the next one; a simple mindful breath will do.
As well as practising the mindfulness skill of doing things “one mindfully”, there are practical things we can do to break our habit of multitasking when we really need to focus.
- Set aside dedicated time in the morning and at the end of the day for working on email.
- Switch off notifications on Smartphones, tablets, and computers.
- Set your status to “Do not disturb”.
- Although it’s not always an option, if you really need peace and quiet, find somewhere quiet when no one else is around.
Whatever you want to achieve, you’ll be more successful if you maintain mental focus and clarity. People sometimes defend multitasking as the only way to get things done in a busy world, which may work for some simple tasks, but not when things are more complex. Building the habit of doing one thing at a time may seem counter-intuitive, but in the end, it’s a real-time saver and will boost your productivity. We’re bombarded by all kinds of distractions, including having our attention highjacked by our own wandering mind. Doing things “one mindfully” has many other benefits, including connecting you into the present moment with what you’re doing, which can make even peeling potatoes a surprising pleasure.
Suggested weekly practice
- Bring one thing at a time into domestic tasks like washing up, peeling potatoes, or cleaning the bath and see what difference it makes.
- Notice what happens when you multitask. Do you actually get more done to a higher level of quality?
- Set a few rules on distractions during the week, like only doing emails at the start and towards the end of the day, not taking your laptop into meetings, or leaving your mobile outside the bedroom and see what happens.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore and experience doing one thing at a time, free from physical or mental interruptions. In this practice, you focus your attention on parts of your body and use your wandering mind as a distraction.
Share on Follow on