Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Single Tasking: The Key To Reducing Stress & Increasing Efficiency

Living in the present is a truly wonderful thing.

It’s when you’re living in the moment that you’re truly released from the insecurities of your past, and when the uncertainties of the future no longer preoccupy your mind.

It’s in the moment that you can give your undivided attention to what really makes the difference in life: -acting proactively and positively right now.

It’s by living in the present that you can really live unhindered by fear and insecurity. That’s when you can live up to the Roman poet Horace’s great words,

“Tomorrow do thy worst; for I have lived today.”

The Key: One Thing at a Time

Adopting that age-old maxim is a good start of course… but in reality, living in the present involves more than just abandoning tomorrow’s anxieties:

It involves shutting yourself off from the next hour’s anxieties, the next minute’s anxieties, the next second’s anxieties. It involves living fully in the moment, without any concern or thought for the past or future.

As far as I’m concerned, no component forms a greater part of that process than single tasking – focusing your attention exclusively on one thing at a time; and allowing yourself to become entirely absorbed in the task at hand.

By single-tasking, you can let go of all the baggage – the stress, the time-pressured sense of urgency, the uncertainty, the anxiety, the self-doubt and insecurity – that undermines your performance or causes you to procrastinate.

You free up an ocean of mental resources; mental resources that would otherwise be squandered through negatively charged thinking patterns.

You no longer feel overwhelmed by the workload of the day; you’re oblivious to it. Neither are you prone to the confused, muddled thinking that tends to be an inevitable by-product of flitting between mentally intensive tasks.

And then, without all that stress, confusion, and lack of clear focus, something magical happens. You start to operate on a higher mental level. One where you’re exponentially more creative, efficient and productive; as well as calmer.

To put it simply, you do things better and faster than you ever would if you multi-tasked.

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

We’re brainwashed with this idea that multi-tasking is the ultimate form of effective time utilisation. But as Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age points out:-

“The average knowledge worker switches tasks every three minutes, and once distracted, takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task… [Additionally] employees who are routinely interrupted, and lack time to focus are more apt to feel frustrated, pressured and stressed.”

In other words, if you multi-task, you’ll fundamentally undermine your performance. You’ll swamp your mind with negative emotions that both hinder your ability to think clearly and act enthusiastically.

And the cherry on the cake? Well, the chances of finishing what you initially set out to do will be somewhere between zero and zero squared.

Ask yourself this question:

How often do you break off from a task – maybe to answer an email or the phone – just to struggle afterwards to get back into what you were doing?

You’ll know as well as I do how easy it is to lose your train of thought. Your mind remains preoccupied with the interruption long after it has passed. You often waste valuable time simply recollecting your thoughts about what you were doing before and how far you’d got.

Much of your time and energy is simply put to waste going over old ground and regaining focus.

The simple truth is that multi-tasking fatally underestimates the importance of focus… and fatally overestimates our ability to regain our focus once we’re interrupted.

That’s the pseudo efficiency of multi-tasking.

No wonder multi-tasking leaves us prone to feeling more ‘frustrated, pressured and stressed’.

A New Single-Tasking Perspective

Single tasking isn’t just a mechanical process. It’s not just about resisting the urge to ricochet from one task to the next like the bullet spray of an Uzi ricochetting off the walls of a metal lined panic room.

No, more importantly, effectively single-tasking is dependant on your perspective.

It’s about developing a perspective where you feel at ease with, and justified in focusing all your mental resources on just one thing at a time. A perspective where you gain sanctuary in the moment, and are entirely indifferent to what came before, or the zillion things that are left to do… today, this week, this year, this lifetime.

It’s about emotionally freeing yourself of all that performance related baggage.

How do you gain that perspective?

As with any conscious decision to change the way you think, it all hinges on your ability to develop a strong conviction. To recognise and appreciate the benefits of thinking / acting in a particular way; and conversely, to appreciate the futility or destructiveness of acting in any other way.

For me, Dale Carnegie’s brilliant analogy of an hourglass in ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’ provides the perfect foundations for developing that conviction: -

Think of your life as an hourglass. There are thousands of grains at the top, and they all pass slowly and evenly through the narrow neck in the middle. Nothing you or I could do would make more than one grain of sand pass through this narrow neck without impairing the hourglass.

What a simple analogy, but what an epiphany it can be:

Life maybe like a box of chocolates… but more fundamentally, it’s like an hourglass.

If we rush, we mess up; if we multi-task, we tend to mess up; if we worry about all the other things we’ve got to do in the day, we mess up.

We only optimally function at one speed – the speed at which we as individuals comfortably get things done; and when our minds are exclusively focused on one task at a time. That’s when we’re at our most efficient and creative.

That’s all you have to keep in mind:

‘If I multi-task, I’ll get stressed and screw up. If I single-task, I’ll function at a higher, more creative, exponentially more effective level.’

Overriding the Default Thinking

Whenever I find myself feeling pressured, confused, or overwhelmed, I stop what I’m doing, take a deep breath and analyse my thinking.

The chances are that I’ve fallen into that trap – consciously or subconsciously – of thinking, ‘So much to do, so little time… got to get it all done NOW.’

It’s then that I’ll consciously override that message. I repeat like a mantra: -

‘I can only do one thing at a time…slowly, evenly…one step at a time.’

Reminding myself of that core truth highlights the futility of trying to do otherwise, and fills me with a sense of control over the situation, and consequently a sense of calm.

It takes a constant commitment to quashing those anxiety-provoking thoughts. I’m a staunch advocate of single-tasking, and yet I’m still vulnerable to pressure inducing, counterproductive thinking.

Just a few of the negative thoughts that have flitted through my mind in the last few minutes are:

  • I’m not working fast enough.
  • I can’t spend all day on this.
  • Why do I work so slowly.
  • I need to be finished by 5 to fit in my run.
  • This is mentally draining – how will I have the energy to do everything else?
  • I need to get this done much more efficiently to stay on track and motivated.

All those thoughts have the potential to stress me out, hinder my performance, grind me down or lead me to seek the sanctuary of the sofa and TV.

Simply by reiterating my firm conviction of the benefits of taking things slowly, evenly, one thing at a time however, I’m able to quickly regain my composure and sink indifferently back into the present.

The present. Never underestimate its importance. It’s the only time you really have to make a positive, proactive difference. It’s far too valuable to be squandered through stress or fear.

Leisurely Proactivity

That reminds me of Seneca, who wrote in Letters from a Stoic:-

A balanced combination of the two attitudes is what we want; the active man should be able to take things easily, while the man who is inclined towards repose should be capable of action. Ask nature: she will tell you that she made both day and night.

In other words, as long as you’re being proactive – and that proactivity isn’t being squandered on trivialities or irrelevancies – then you can afford to take your time.

You can afford to be calm, composed and leisurely in your approach; focusing your attention firmly on one thing at a time.

That’s not an excuse to over indulge, to take all day on a task that can and should be completed in an hour or two. But it is an excuse not to feel harried or panicked; to work at a relaxed, but purposeful pace.

Single Tasking, Not Single Minded

Single-tasking doesn’t mean you have to stick rigidly to one task; that you refuse to take a break, or work single-mindedly on one task until completion.

There are times when, for your own peace of mind, you have to take time-out to have a KitKat.

Sometimes, you need to put things aside to regain perspective. And of course, for the best of us, attention, focus and willpower are finite resources. Those essential mental resources are only effectively replenished through frequent breaks.

On big projects too, it simply isn’t feasible to single-mindedly focus on just one task day after day, week after week, month after month.

Projects often stall for reasons beyond your control – you have to fill in that spare time in you’re to remain productive. Likewise, essential ‘to-do’s’ crop up as an unavoidable part of everyday life. To neglect them, just to be a single-tasking puritan, would be a sure route to seeing your life fall apart.

That’s taking the principle of single-tasking too far.

Instead, single-tasking means surrendering fully to whatever you’re doing, for however long you want to do it.

It means resisting the urge to actively work on two things in real time. No multiple projects open at the same time; no flitting back and forth betwen tasks every couple of minutes.

And whilst single tasking doesn’t imply working endlessly on one thing until completion, it does imply that you focus your attention exclusively on one task long enough to to see quantifiable, positive progress.

That means sticking with one task for a sufficient length of time to be drawn into it, to become absorbed by it, to be able to think about it on a deeper level, to work at a steady, unhurried pace; and ultimately, to be a tangible step closer to the completion of a bigger goal.

Whether you work exclusively on one task for 30 minutes, an hour, two hours or the entire day, is both irrelevant and is as individual a choice as you are.

I personally find that I tend to work best in hour slots. Longer than that and my attention often quickly ebbs; and my continued efforts produce rapidly diminishing returns.

But ultimately, the simple litmus test of effective single-tasking is whether or not you were able to get something constructive done without inturuption; and without feeling pressured, stressed or frustrated.

Achieve that and you can take a break with the contented knowledge that you single-tasked your time well.

One thing I always try to remember is this: No matter how grand the project, every project is simply the sum of numerous single-tasked parts. Nothing has to, or can be done in one sitting.

I for example, can only write this article one paragraph at a time, one draft at a time. The article is itself part of a bigger project – this website. Which in turn, is part of an even bigger life-project.

With each single-tasking session, I move maybe a paragraph, a section, a website closer to it’s completion. But my focus is always on that one little step; on what I’m doing right now.

Limiting Interruptions

Reducing interruptions to a bare minimum is crucial for effective single-tasking.

To that end, reactively responding to other people’s demands has to be avoided. If that means putting your phone on silent or flight-mode, not answering the door when the doorbell rings, sticking up a ‘do not interrupt’ sign or politely but firmly telling people that you can’t talk right now because you’re busy, then so be it.

Helping people to understand that every time you’re interrupted you lose valuable minutes of productivity, may help them to be more respectful. Personally, I ask people to limit their interruptions to informing me of the house burning down or the break-out of nuclear armaggedon.

Of course, asking people politely to leave you in peace doesn’t always work – and of you have to be flexible and get non too stressed when it doesn’t. But it at least helps others to appreciate at a basic level how valuable you hold non-interrupted work. Likewise, informing others when you’re likely to be working, and when you’ll be free might help to keep interruptions to a bare minimum.

The same applies to those voluntary interruptions we all find ourselves prone to revelling in – compulsively checking email or the news headlines every five seconds; taking a break every few minutes to make a coffee, to scoff a packet of crisps, to go to the toilet, to stare blankly out of the window, to wonder over to the first easily distractible, friendly face your eyes fall upon for an aimless chat.

Have some self-discipline. If you want others to respect your time, then you must respect your own.

When you decide you’re going to single task, make a resolute promise to yourself that you’ll focus exclusively on what you’re doing without getting side-tracked… for as long as you decide you’re going to commit to that one task.

I’ve single tasked the last 600 words of this article from for the last 45 minutes. I haven’t moved from my seat, I haven’t checked my email, looked or Amazon, Facebook or eBay, or looked at my phone… not bad with for a person with an ADHD personality.

In fact, I can honestly say that it’s exclusively down to that resolute single-tasking mind-set that I ever manage to get anything done at all.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth