In Praise of Single-Tasking

37Signals’ blog made mention of a post about the counter-productivity of multi-tasking.

Scott [Berkun] brings up the latest research that casts multi-tasking in a counter-productive light. He ultimately suggests that if we want to achieve greatness that we should pay attention to how the great people who came before us paid attention—by blocking distractions out and focusing on the task at hand. Given all the focus on attention today on the web, this talk is timely.

Former micro-ISV owner turned Personal Development Coach for “Smart People” shared similar insight in Triple Your Personal Productivity.

The 4 Hour Workweek

Recently, John Jantsch wrote in his Duct Tape Marketing Blog about Tim Ferriss, lifestyle and productivity guru and author of 4 Hour Work Week book and blog. Tim is a huge proponent of single tasking. And it’s worked well for him. A self-described “professional polymath”, Tim has built a lifestyle around accomplishing a wide variety of interesting feats worldwide by single-tasking for top performance combined with “outsourcing” many aspects of his life.

Check out fourhourworkweek.com for some interesting insight, including two recent articles: one on the study of the distracting effects of e-mail and ringing phones compared to marijuana and another one on how to firewall out distractions.

John’s words: Tim is an engaging guide on the journey to design a life around your plans and dreams using work simply as a way to live passionately. … Tim coaches you to go on an information diet – don’t just filter information, eliminate it.

In Praise of Single Tasking

As an experiment, I started forcing myself into strict single-tasking last week. Here’s what I found.

Productive

At first it was very, very hard not to sucumb to the habit and flip over to peek at email or a blog entry while waiting for a webpage to load, for tests to run, or while talking with someone on the phone. Yet I quickly noticed how much more productive the primary task seemed when it had 100% attention. I found I did not have to reread or repeat tasks and found that estimates of how long a task would take were more accurate.

Focused

The most surprising benefit though is that I no longer feel so overwhelmed with everything that needs to get done. By single-tasking, the mind has one thing at a time to consider instead of being overloaded with multiple concerns. Single-tasking is giving me a feeling of calm and order combined with increased productivity.

Better Customer Service

Single tasking is also a great benefit for LeadsOnRails users. When I am talking or chatting with a user, they can (usually) be assured of 100% of my attention. I have been on conference calls (or even personal calls) where I have had to ask someone to repeat something because my mind drifted elsewhere. If you have not drifted, I’m sure you’ve been on such calls where you’ve heard it happen. Those days are over for me.

If You Can’t Eliminate It, Schedule It

While Tim Ferriss recommends information elimination, not all information can be eliminated and it becomes easy to get distracted by the constant information . I wrote an entry last summer entitled How to Avoid Distraction. I won’t repeat the entry here except to highlight one aspect that has proven effective.

To avoid distraction – schedule it. To avoid being distracted by something during your workday, make the distraction itself a task to be completed that day. Do this regularly and your mind will stay “on task” because you know there will be time later to spend on whatever is distracting you.

Try It Out

I recommend trying the single-task work method. Most people normally schedule tasks in a consecutive, not concurrent fashion. The difficult part is keeping single-task focus. Especially when sitting at a computer, with millions of interesting information and entertainment alternatives to your primary task constantly available, it can be hard not to be tempted away during a few second pause in a primary task. If an urgent task, such as an important phone call, does comes up: go ahead and answer it, make it your primary (and only task) and give it your full attention. Try it out.

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