Single Tasking by Dr. Jim Taylor

Having established in a previous post that what most people call multitasking is not the most productive and efficient way to work, the next question I want to address is how to effectively engage in single tasking. The answer is definitely not rocket science; it simply requires prioritizing, delegation, focus, and most importantly, commitment and discipline. But, as with most things in life, single tasking is easier said than done.

Start Single Tasking

A good starting point when trying to become a single-tasker is to rethink how you structure your day. First, prioritize your daily activities. If you are like most technologists, you have such confidence in your ability to be productive that you schedule far more to do than you can actually get done. Add in the daily crises, plus the so-called multitasking, and you have little chance of completing everything on your daily calendar. You end up overestimating your capabilities and being disappointed at the end of the day, because your work wasn’t of the quality that you expect of yourself, or you weren’t able to check off everything on your task list.

Instead of falling into this pattern, I encourage you to underestimate what you can accomplish — it will still be a lot — and be pleasantly surprised at the end of the day at how much you get done. An added bonus is that you will be less stressed, enjoy your day more, and produce higher quality work to boot. So rank your upcoming tasks based on how important they are, when they need to be accomplished, and how much time they will take to finish. Then, choose the activities that rank highest on your priority list, and commit to finishing them regardless of the potential distractions that may arise. If you finish the highest-priority tasks, you can then tackle those of a lower priority (or really live on the edge and leave work a bit earlier than usual!).

Second, be selective in responding to what you perceive as crises. You know that much of what disrupts a day are unexpected “fires” that must be put out immediately. These unanticipated events disrupt your focus, take up time, and set your schedule back, often so far that you can’t catch up. But in my experience in the business world, I have found that many of the so-called crises aren’t as calamitous as they seem and could be dealt with at a later point or delegated to co-workers. Remind yourself that an emergency on someone else’s part doesn’t necessarily constitute an emergency for you. Be clear in defining a crisis and be willing to set aside those that don’t quite clear that bar.

Next, use your administrative assistant — if you have one — as a gatekeeper. I have found that there are few people more important than a competent and strong “admin.” By educating your admin on your new work habits, he or she can turn away unnecessary visitors and non-urgent calls, as well as monitor your email while you’re single tasking in case there is an actual emergency that requires your attention.

Fourth, if you work with a team, delegate as much as possible to reduce the pile of work on your desk. I have found this is often a challenge for technologists for several reasons. You may love doing everything and not want to miss out. You may believe that you are the only one on your team capable of completing the task to your rigorous standards. Or, you may be a control freak who simply must be on top of every little thing on your radar screen.

Delegating is win-win. You are freed to focus on really important work, thus elevating your productivity and efficiency. You are less stressed and more creative. Your team wins even more; they feel empowered because you have shown faith in their abilities. Your team gains valuable experience that makes them even more capable. You are actually doing what teams are supposed to do — work together. And together, you and your team get a whole lot more done.

Maximize Focus

Now that you have set the stage for effective single tasking, your next step is to structure your immediate environment in a way that will maximize your ability to focus and minimize potential distractions. Here are some of the most common multitasking distractions and recommended solutions:

  • People coming in and out of your office or walking by your cubicle. Solution: close your office door or configure your cubicle so you face away from the opening.
  • Uncomfortable work space. Solution: Identify and create the setting in which you are most comfortable and productive, for example, a well-lit room, in a comfortable chair, or with your shoes off.
  • Cluttered workspace. Solution: organize your workspace in a way that will allow you to work efficiently, with easy access to available information and a minimum of distracting clutter.
  • The compulsive and frequent desire to check your smartphone. Solution: turn it off for periods when you need to focus on another task.
  • Too many tasks in your field of vision. Solution: clear your desk of everything except that which is immediately relevant to the task at hand.

It Takes Discipline

Remember when you were in high school and your parents were always popping into your room to see if you were working? Wouldn’t it be great if they did that now? They would provide discipline and force you to focus on one task at a time. Unfortunately, you’re probably on your own now and, as a result, have to discipline yourself. This can certainly be a challenge in an environment with what seems like too many things to do and not enough time to do them.

Don’t think for a minute that implementing these changes will be easy. Like many technologists, you may be a multitasking junkie, feeling a constant urge to check your email, read the latest tech news, or connect with colleagues. But, as with most “addictions,” acknowledgement and acceptance are the first steps to “cure.”

I wouldn’t recommend trying to break your multitasking “jones” cold turkey. An incremental approach seems to be most effective. Pick one or two strategies that I have described above and commit yourself to them. With dedication, time, and practice, you will learn how to focus more effectively. And the great thing about breaking yourself of your multitasking habits is that its benefits are self-evident and substantial.

cross posted at

Jim Taylor, Ph.D. in psychology, is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco. He blogs on education and technology for,,,, and other Web sites around the country, as well as on blog/archives/education.