How to *not* multitask 

When was the last time you did one thing? I know it sounds silly, but really – when did you do one thing, without adding a secondary activity? Can you remember?

I honestly can’t. I can’t remember taking the train without reading a book. Queuing at the supermarket cashier without checking my phone. Snacking without browsing the news. Waiting at a traffic light without fiddling with the radio. Sitting in a meeting without monitoring my emails.

Three things going on here - coffee, computer and a chat over the phone, all with a smile!

And it’s not easy. It’s a skill, really. Multitasking is a sought-after skill – and the demand for it is apparent from every job description (think: “able to handle several projects simultaneously” / “manage conflicting deadlines”). It really is the 21st century skill and we are successfully embracing it. Look around and you’ll see that we’re all getting better at it. Without this skill you simply won’t cope. Life is too fast paced to do one thing at a time.

Or at least this is what I thought. Until recently.

Maybe it’s me, but I sometimes feel that we have lost focus in our quest to become multitasking wizards. We send emails and only later realize that we haven’t even addressed the sender’s question. We confirm meetings (“sent from my iPhone/BlackBerry” etc.) but forget to actually put them in our calendar. We listen to people – but we don’t listen. Not really. We think of our to-do list. We do one thing while trying to solve another one.

We spread ourselves thin.

Similarly, I realised that I need to bring focus to my work, need to do one thing at a time. But maintaining focus is hard.

It used to be easier, but it feels as if trying to be a master multitasker has gnawed away my skill to focus. I can do many things with satisfying outcome. But I can’t summon the focus for the one thing, the one thing which is supposed to be truly outstanding.

If multitasking is the 21st century skill, maybe one-pointed focus and attention is the 22nd century challenge. 

Just for now, I need to cheat a little. If I can’t stay focused, I create the environment that does not even allow me to get distracted (no phone, email or music, for example). I’ll also renew my commitment to meditate every day, even though there never seems to be enough time for it. I hope that particularly when life is busy, meditation helps to cultivate focus – and eventually efficiency. (As they say: If you have time, meditate 20 minutes. If you don’t have time, meditate for one hour.)

It seems I got carried away by the “glorification of multitasking” and now I’m back at square one. Maybe un-learning to multitask is as hard as learning it.

What are your strategies to deal with situations that require multitasking, and with those that require long, sustained and focussed attention? Do you think multitasking is actually the enemy of efficiency?

Please share your tips!

~ Andrea

Image credit here and here.

3 replies »

  1. Andrea, thank you for this. For the reminder that multitasking, while glorified in our present cultural, can be a deterrent to connection, efficiency and all that is good and simple and beautiful. The most basic thing I can suggest is that we all turn our screens off from time to time –to take care to notice that which and who is ever before us.


    • You’re so right, it’s not efficient (or at least doesn’t work this way for me). I read somewhere that multitasking is “the surest way of messing up both jobs” 🙂


  2. What a great post, which i read on my tablet while half watching the tv. You are so right. I have no tips. My brain does not get down time, i will switch tasks all the time, playing a word online while waiting for a report, scanning my phone when waiting for the train, or on the train, reading mails when on a conf call. It is terrible, and i will definitely try to slow down tomorrow and not allow my brain to be always active. It is like an addiction. I cannot do nothing. I find that when i do focus totally on one task, it is when it needs all my concentration, and often I am lost in the task, totally in the zone. I need to learn to channel all my concentration also into tasks that do not appear to need it, like sitting on the train.


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