In today’s world of work, there’s always more to do and fewer people to do it. So, we tend to work longer hours and try and pack more into each day. This leads us to juggle activities at the same time so we can complete what needs to be done. Of course, there are times when multi-tasking is useful and necessary. Sometimes we just need to get stuff done and the only productive way is doing more than one thing at a time. However, when we multitask we switch our attention between tasks, which research tells us can reduce productivity by up to 40%. Other research found that having our attention on social media while we work can lower our IQ by 10 points while we are on the task.
The habit of multitasking creeps into almost everything we do. The assumption almost seems to be that if you’re not doing more than thing at a time, you’re not working hard enough. But are we confusing quantity with quality? There are many important tasks that really require a high quality of sustained attention, combined with mental clarity, for instance, solving a complex technical issue, producing an important customer proposal, 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 that we’re 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 referred to as acting “one mindfully”. This means if you are walking, rather than drifting off in thought, simply walking and opening your senses to the world around you. If you’re having a conversation, rather than rehearsing your response, focus your 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 soon notice that the habit of multi-tasking soon tries to take over and that it’s surprisingly difficult. One useful tip is to focus on “where the work gets done”. 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 a new task; a simple mindful breath will do.
As well as practising the mindfulness skill of doing things “one mindfully”, there is a range of practical things you can try to break the multitasking habit when you really need to focus.
- Shut down email and go back to it towards the end of the day
- Switch off notifications on Smartphones, tablets and computers
- Set your instant messaging app to “Do not disturb”
- If you really need peace and quiet, find somewhere quiet, or see if you can work from home 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 high-jacked 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.
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 the distraction.
Share on Follow on