One Task at a Time: Single Tasking Benefits Explained

Charlotte Seibert, March 21, 2024

Single tasking

How many times today alone has your workflow been interrupted by spontaneous messages and emails? How many open tabs are you working with right now? And what factors from your immediate work environment are disrupting your focus?

Every day, we are faced with numerous tasks and obligations that all demand our attention at the same time. Trying to multitask, we can barely keep up, while deadlines relentlessly approach. Our productivity and energy levels drop. The quality of our results decreases. No wonder, because: multitasking is a myth.

Focusing 100% on just one thing at a time may sound unrealistic. Ironically, so-called single tasking is ideal for achieving high-quality results quickly and efficiently.

Some of the benefits of single tasking include:

  • Minimized cognitive effort
  • Improved focus
  • Getting into a flow state more easily
  • Less stress while keeping productivity high

Let's dive deep into the topic, find out why multitasking is an illusion, how single tasking works, what (long-term) benefits it offers, and how you can increase your productivity with 5 practical and quickly implementable strategies.

The myth of multitasking

myth of multitasking

Multitasking means taking on several tasks at the same time. It seems to be the ideal and necessary strategy for the daily mountain of tasks and messages. Why waste time when you can keep an eye on several things at once?

Despite your best efforts, however, you get stuck for longer than you had hoped. In between, messages, emails, and minor issues demand attention. Time pressure and stress increase. Overtime and excessive demands become an integral part of everyday working life, which is characterized by interruptions and distractions. After work, you usually feel exhausted and tense. Targets are missed and the hard-earned results could also be better.

An excessive workload, a lack of clearly defined priorities and constantly answering messages often lead to multitasking. Other reasons may include a lack of personal interest or emotional involvement in your work. It is also possible that distractions and multitasking have already become a habit. Without stimulation, you may quickly feel bored and restless.

The problem is that the human brain is not capable of multitasking. It cannot do more than one task at a time without compromising quality. Especially not if these tasks require active thinking and focused attention. In short: Multitasking is a myth.

Why multitasking doesn't work

What feels like dealing with several things at once is cognitive jumps or switches. These switches are so fast that you hardly notice them, if at all. People who habitually multitask are under the illusion of simultaneity.

Multitaskers falsely perceive themselves as particularly efficient and productive. The brain even rewards these perceptions with feelings of happiness. In reality, however, the constant and rapid succession of changes costs a lot of energy and time.

Just like working with a fragile thread, concentration is constantly broken during multitasking. It takes time and effort to pick up such a thread again and tie it back together. The resulting fabric lacks quality.

The downsides of multitasking should not be underestimated:

  • Lack of efficiency & productivity
  • Loss of energy & ability to concentrate
  • Increasing pressure & stress
  • Avoidable mistakes
  • Tasks tend to be completed superficially & too late

The cognitive drain of multitasking can even have long-term consequences. It can lead to chronic stress, a shrinking attention span and even poorer memory and learning ability.

How single tasking works

how single tasking works

The opposite of multitasking is single tasking. In other words, devoting as much concentration and attention as possible to just one task at a time. With single tasking, you don't switch back and forth between numerous tabs, tasks, and chats. Distractions and interruptions are minimized. You only move on to the next task once you have focused specifically on solving one task.

Single tasking can also be defined from a minimalist perspective: by reducing everything unnecessary, you create space for what is essential. True to the motto "less is more" or "work smarter, not harder".

Working productively and efficiently means making the most of your time and energy. Two extremely valuable but limited resources. In the context of single tasking, "work smarter" means investing time and energy wisely. And not wasting it on frequent switching back and forth, as is the case with multitasking.

The advantages of single tasking

Single tasking is particularly suitable for lengthy, time-consuming projects and demanding tasks. It minimizes cognitive effort, attention and focus are restored, and the brain gets the necessary space and time to explore things in greater depth. This way, you save energy and achieve higher and better quality results faster. The (long-term) benefits of single tasking are noticeable right away:

  • Increased efficiency & productivity in less time
  • Increased concentration & performance
  • Creativity & working in a flow state
  • Improved memory
  • More energy & satisfaction with less stress

Perhaps the biggest benefit is achieving a flow state, which is in stark contrast to the irregular start-stop pattern of multitasking. Time just flows by while you work with the same fluidity and concentration. At the same time, your creativity gets unlocked.

This can be compared to a hike: If you keep stopping frequently, you have to reorient yourself each time and motivate yourself to keep going. In this way, you need more time and energy than necessary to cover the distance. If, on the other hand, you keep moving, it is easier to fall into an effortless trot. This allows you to cover longer distances smoothly and evenly. Plus you can even enjoy the view.

5 strategies for making single tasking work

Switching to single tasking may seem boring or even impossible. Single tasking is not a solution to all problems. But compared to multitasking, single tasking offers numerous advantages.

Changing long-held habits is challenging. So is resisting the numerous distractions of our fast-paced world. But just a few minutes of single tasking a day can already have a positive effect.

With the following 5 strategies, you can not only learn to gradually master single tasking. You can also regain control over your work and establish boundaries in your working life. For more efficiency and better results with less stress.

1. Create a suitable working environment

suitable working environment

Your immediate physical and digital working environment can have a significant impact on your productivity. It's just as easy to lose track of things on a cluttered desk as it is on a cluttered screen. Perhaps the most prominent distraction is your phone, which you can use to escape into your favorite series, private chats, or social media.

If you want to minimize distractions, start with your workspace:

  • Tidy up your desk
  • Silence your cell phone or leave it in your pocket
  • Close unnecessary tabs, apps, and files
  • Clear out your documents

The following applies not only to single tasking but also to your working environment at large: getting rid of the unnecessary opens up space for the essential.

2. Take time for planning

Not knowing the what, why, and how of your work will disrupt your workflow. It makes it difficult to estimate your capacity and your overall workload. This uncertainty can quickly lead to stress and overtime. The time that careful planning takes is worth it in the long run.

Start your week or day by taking time for planning:

  • Get an overview of your tasks & goals
  • Schedule fixed times for answering messages
  • Mark focus times in your calendar
  • Prioritize the most important & labor-intensive tasks
  • Divide your day into task chunks & place similar tasks next to each other

It is important to be as specific and realistic as possible. Automatic time tracking software, such as Memtime, can provide the information you need. Even weeks later, you can use the detailed and precise timelog of your activities to see when you are most productive, what interrupts or distracts you the most, and how much time you need for your tasks and projects.

3. Use a timer or the Pomodoro technique

using a timer

Staying focused during long periods of work requires energy and effort. Especially when switching from multitasking to single tasking, keeping obstacles as low as possible can be helpful:

  • Start with 10-20 minutes of single tasking per day
  • Use a timer
  • Increase time intervals gradually
  • Try the Pomodoro technique (20-25 minutes of concentrated work alternating with a 5-minute break)

Alternatively, you can use a timer or automatic time tracking to monitor how long you can maintain your concentration.

Single tasking may feel unfamiliar at first. Over time, however, the positive effects quickly become noticeable. You will work efficiently towards a clear goal and still have energy at the end of your working day.

4. Take regular breaks

To prevent exhaustion and monotony, schedule regular breaks. The key is to use these breaks in a meaningful way:

  • Step away from your screen & desk
  • Allow yourself to zone out & daydream
  • Practice mindfulness, e.g. by taking deep breaths
  • Get active, move & stretch
  • Spend (longer) breaks outside if possible

Rest and productivity are by no means the opposites. Proper and well-used breaks are necessary for performance - and not a waste of time.

5. Boost your productivity through self-reflection

self reflection for productivity

If you tend to multitask and still find single tasking difficult, you might want to take a closer look. When and how are you most often interrupted at work? Do you find it harder to concentrate on certain tasks?

You can get an overview of your working hours with the help of pen and paper or with an automatic time tracker such as Memtime - effortlessly, discreetly in the background, and with a 100% free trial period.

Monitoring your activities gives you a deep insight into your working style and habits. You can use this information to increase your productivity. You will also learn to view your time and energy as valuable resources and to invest them wisely.

Find out in which working environment and at what time of day you work most efficiently. Use these insights to plan your week, your day, or even entire projects as realistically and wisely as possible.

Wrapping up

The modern workplace seems to make single tasking impossible. Being able to move flexibly between numerous demands gives us the feeling of being successful and sharp. But the mental jumps of multitasking come at a price. Our performance decreases while we are at risk of being left behind by increasing stress and overload

But we don't have to go beyond our limits to accomplish much. Single tasking allows us to achieve more with less. More concentration, productivity, and creativity. In the long term, single tasking can make us more successful and happier.

In crises, multitasking can be a useful skill. Giving it up overnight is probably unrealistic. However, it is worth trying out and practicing single tasking. Anyone who understands single tasking as a tool has a powerful instrument at their disposal to face the big and difficult challenges that get us ahead.

Meet the author:

Author - Charlotte Seibert

Charlotte Seibert

After studying humanities and working in the cultural sector organizing and programming bigger events, Charlotte Seibert immersed herself in the world of marketing. For Memtime, Charlotte writes about productivity topics and the benefits of automated time tracking.

Outside of work, Charlotte can usually be found with a book, her analog camera, or planning her next trip to the theater.