Is Single-Tasking More Productive Than Multi-Tasking?

We all know those people — the ones that can simultaneously handle six different tasks and complete them flawlessly. The multitaskers. And it’s long been thought that they’re doing something right. That they’ve got it figured out. But what if we told you that it was actually the single-taskers that were ahead of the metaphorical curve?

Single-tasking is exactly what it sounds like — working on one, and only one, task at a time, devoting 100% of your energy towards that task. Single-tasking can apply to tasks inside or out of the workplace, and it boils down to one simple hypothesis: doing one thing at a time makes you more productive. This can seem counterintuitive, as we’ve long been told that the people who multitask are the more advanced, smarter, and more effective. 

Multitasking is actually a myth, and over the last ten years there’s been research suggesting that single-tasking is the secret to getting more done.

How exactly does that work? Let’s take a look at some of the powerful benefits of single-tasking.

Single-tasking improves performance

When you focus on one single task, you’re limiting context switching and time wasted jumping back and forth from task to task. It’s been proven that multitasking actually makes things 40% more timely to complete — therefore, focusing on one task at a time will improve overall efficiency as you’ll be able to get more done in a shorter period of time. 

Single-tasking will also decrease stress and burnout that you could feel from cramming tons of smaller tasks into one sitting. Over the last 20 years, technological burnout has become increasingly difficult to manage as we’re expected to monitor several devices, apps, and email accounts 24/7. Single-tasking is a great way to stop yourself from falling into the stressful always-on trap. Check one email at a time. Respond to one Slack at a time without responding to a text in the middle of your message. It’ll make things easier.

Frees up valuable brain space

Did you know that our brain attempts to process 11 million bits of information per second, but in reality can only process 40? That means that most of the things you observe aren’t processed at all. This means that multitaskers aren’t actually multi-tasking, they’re just trying to.

It’s been proven that people who are multi-tasking are actually just switching back and forth between tasks at a rate that diminishes overall efficiency and productivity. So why not limit the inputs and focus on a single task at a time? By single-tasking, you’re decreasing the overwhelming amount of stimuli your brain is trying to process and funneling all of your focus into one thing. This increases your likelihood of understanding or accomplishing that single task.

Single tasks are easier to track

How many times have you tried to multitask, only to eventually forget one of the tasks altogether? Let’s say you’re starting a new business for example. Although writing content for your new website homepage while simultaneously creating a logo design seems like it’s more productive, you will probably spend more time just remembering where you left off with each task as you switch back and forth.

When we’re multitasking, it’s much harder to track progress made towards each task, as our brain has to constantly switch and reconcile progress made on task A with task B. We’re making things much too hard on ourselves.

When you single-task, your brain has one task, and one task only, to track and respond to, increasing your ability to see a task through to completion successfully. That doesn’t mean you can’t break down one task into sub-tasks — in fact, we recommend it. Using Hive to break tasks into smaller, bite-size steps is impactful and can help you stay organized.

Multitasking can have negative long-term effects on the brain

Think of your brain as a super powerful computer. When you’ve got 123 tabs open, three Adobe programs running, and are trying to stream a Netflix show, you’re going to find that the computer is moving slowly. The same thing happens in our brains.

Research has proven, through MRI scans of multitaskers brains, that performing more than one task at once decreases the brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex. This isn’t exactly ideal, as this part of the brain is important for impulse control and empathy. In an effort to slow that process down, try honing in on one tab at a time. Your brain will thank you in the long-run.

How Do I Single-Task?

Now that we understand the crazy upside of single-tasking, we can take a look at a few ways to get into single-tasking. One of the most popular is to actually work in small increments, ideally somewhere around 18 minutes, which is our natural attention spans as humans. If we set aside 20 minutes per task, we will be able to focus our limited attention span onto one specific thing. This will limit the time our brain has to hop around.

Another great way to single-task is to remove all distractions from your workspace. Yes, that includes phones, Apple Watches, iPads — the works. Click out of all of your extra windows on your computer, and sit down with the one tab or screen you need open to get your work done. This also helps reign your brain in and keep it focused.

Using a task management or project management tool is another easy way to stay on-top of single-tasking. With Hive, you can track all single tasks inside larger projects, giving them a due date and assignees. When you’re ready to complete a task, simply go to your task list and find the action item you want to focus on. When you’re done, you can mark the task as completed and move onto the next. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

Finally, try to stay present in meetings. Since most of us are remote, it can be difficult to keep your attention on your Zoom meeting throughout its duration. But it’s worth it. By funneling your attention into the meeting at hand, you prevent work from slipping through the cracks, any miscommunications, and you make your coworkers’ commentary and presentations feel important. Another benefit of single-tasking is that you make the people you’re talking to or interacting with feel valued and important, which is really helpful in both professional and personal settings.

Overall, it’s clear that single-tasking has huge benefits that are hard to overlook, and could be the way of the future. That being said, during this COVID-19 crisis, some of us may not have the ability to work only on one task at a time — maybe we’re watching our children, helping them with school, or just managing a ton of other unpredictable elements. But fear not, even just cutting down your multitasking to 2-3 tasks at a time can improve productivity by 30%. Who needs to have 123 tabs open anyways?