This Weekend Why Don’t You… Single Task?

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I was listening to a podcast today.  I am a big fan of podcasts and the one I listened to was recommended to me by Author/Illustrator/Fair Trade Ambassador Chris Haughton*.   I don’t take just anyone’s recommendation when it comes to podcasts, but I met Chris when he was in Melbourne last year and he’s just a great guy and a good thinker.  I’m into recommendations by great guys, so off I went to have a listen (and a think.)

The podcast in question is an interview with 4 Hour Work Week author Timothy Ferriss. (I believe he is touring Australia as we speak. You can buy tickets for the cost of a small Pacific island.)  Tim’s an interesting speaker, and I was kicking myself that I didn’t have a notepad as I took my daily walk, because he said a lot of stuff that got me thinking.

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Let me set the scene…  So, there I was with my new friend Mr Ferriss in my ears at six o clock in the morning.  I knew nothing about him and had not even read his book, The 4 Hour Work Week. Hmm. I am a bit turned off by the title, truth be told.  It makes me feel lazy just hearing it.  I have a wacky work ethic which makes me feel sloth-like if I don’t keep busy 18 hours of the day.  Four hours a WEEK?  That seemed a bit demented to me.  I did, however, want to have a listen and see what he was all about.  Heck, people seem to like Tim.  I wanted to give Tim a go too.  And so I did.

Do you know what?  I am glad that I did give Tim a chance.  I learned a lot.  I will not tell you all the things Tim said, because I don’t want to steal his thunder and you can listen for free yourself.  But ONE of the things Tim said made me stop in my tracks.  I thought you would want to know about it. Maybe you already know about it?  Tim talked about learning to SINGLE TASK.  Holy moses.  I think this idea is BIG.

You don’t have to dig very deep to realise that Tim is not the only one to extol the virtues of single-tasking.  Gretchen Rubin, author of one of my favourite books The Happiness Project, talks about focus here, and Leo Babauta of Zen Habits has some further anti-multi-tasking (phew!) advice here.

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When you think about it, you realise our society is strongly encouraged to multi-task. A lot of us even like to think we are really good at it, that’s it’s a total asset.  You can see us, right?  We’re stirring the risotto, while we’re glancing at the newspaper, yelling homework advice, sipping wine, listening to Classic Hits FM, wondering about tomorrow’s to-do list, polishing the peanut butter off the iPad screen and trying to pick up spilled Cheezels with our toes.  And that’s probably a quiet early evening.  We didn’t even factor in trying to look nice, smell nice, plan nice, act nice and be nice, amidst all the practicalities.

Sir Tim has been on about single tasking for years.  I think I missed it because I was way too busy competing in the Multi-Tasking Olympics.  Probably I was waxing my legs while walking the dog whilst thinking about finding the school raffle tickets whilst wondering if waterproof mascara is making my eyelashes fall out whilst deciding whether to buy that book I saw recommended on that blog last week whilst hopefully trying to iron my dress with the hairdryer whilst grating carrots.

Ow.  My brain hurts just typing that. Imagine how it feels actually DOING that. It’s not good.

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So THIS weekend, why don’t you give single tasking a trial run.  I’m going to do it too.  Let’s just do one thing at a time, devoting our attention to the task at hand.  Let’s focus on soaking up the thing we are doing and try to avoid being distracted.  Let’s give each thing a good run for its money.  Let’s stop stacking stuff up like task-Jenga and just move a bit more slowly and purposefully… like, um… chess!  Let’s stop training so hard for the Multi-Tasking Olympics, because it might make our brains and bodies feel lots better.  And let’s stop counting the balls that other people are juggling, and just deal with our own balls (tee-hee) one at a time.  And let’s take breaks between each task.  They will be called Ball Breaks.

Let’s see what kind of dividends we get from the one-by-one approach.  Let’s do that!  Are you in?

xx Pip

* Chris’s latest kids’ book is called A Bit Lost

  • Ella Walsh

    Not sure about this single tasking caper… If I devote my time to completing one task at a time, there will not be enough hours in the day to get the stuff that usually happens before breakfast done! I don’t think I am ready for single tasking – maybe I could consider double tasking though, or even better, triple tasking…

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      Ella! You totally sound like ME! I am like chook with its head chopped off sometimes! But I have noticed that when I slow down, I feel better and I get mucho better results! Whodathunkit?! I am not sure if I can stick to the single task schedule… I will try. I will. xx

  • https://www.google.com/profiles/117446348555499024728 angelalouiseosborn

    Great advice, Pip. I have been hearing similar theories lately, including that our brains work better when focusing on only one thing so you can be more productive and less stressed by just doing one thing at a time. I have no scientific proof of this though, and I can’t remember where I read it (helpful I know!) Still, I’m willing to give it a go!

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      I totally think you are SPOT ON ANGELA! I read it somewhere else too, from a health point of view. But I can’t remember where. Because my multi tasking brain spun it off into the archives before I could bookmark it! xx

  • https://www.google.com/profiles/116843646563247881553 kelly.exeter

    I too have bowed down at the altar of Tim and Gretchen and where possible, override my natural instincts to do “ONE THING AT A TIME”. And I admit when I do it, I am actually much more efficient. It is a hard natural instinct to override though!

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      I think we need to go to Multi-Taskers rehab, Kelly! My name is Pip. I am a Multi-Tasker…

  • Melinda

    Today I cleaned every inch of our entry/foyer place. I did not stop until I had wiped skirtings, dusted corners, cleared out the old hats. Let me tell you it felt really good – there might be something in this theory Pip!

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      Oh my gosh! This is just the story of hope we all need, Melinda! xx

  • http://tertle1.blogspot.com/ tertle1

    These are probably THE hardest things to do. FOCUS & COMPLETE.
    So important though, especially when it comes to spending time with the kids I think… I’m a bit worried now that my kids are growing up watching me balance way too many things in a day and starting so many projects without focus and completion, that they will end up like me in that way!
    Time to make a real ‘go’ of the ‘one tasking’…..

    Where was I again???

    Cheers Pip! You are Ace!

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      You know what? When I chat to my kids, I see them watching my focus. I can SEE the disappointment when I waver to the nearest screen or newspaper. I am really trying hard NOT to do this! I want them to have my full attention when we are doing stuff together! Thanks for reminding me of that! x

  • Ruth Bone

    I’ve come to realise over the last year or so that I’m RUBBISH at multi- tasking. As it is something women are meant to excel at I felt I was being un-sisterly & letting the side down!. I’m always rushing around from one half finished task to the other, often knocking a plant pot over on the way giving myself another job to complete. Engrossed in an intense converations while driving, or even just getting carried away listening to a the radio I have often shot past the exit I was meant to take – arghhh! I’ve seen that look of disappointment on my kids faces as I’ve drifted back to the paper when they are still talking to me too Pip. I’m not sure if I’ve always been this inefficient or if it got worse as I approached & passed the big 40. Either way, I fully behind the single task movement !

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      Oh listen to you, Ruth! I am with you! I CAN multi-task, but I don’t like the results! I CAN single task too, but I realised over the weekend that I can’t single task for everything! SO, I can single task when it comes to kid things, because that is important. I can single task when I read (easy!) BUT, I like to DOUBLE task too. I think I am best at DOUBLE tasking! Walking whilst listening to podcasts = DOUBLE tasking. Cooking whilst drinking wine = DOUBLE tasking. Watching TV and crocheting = DOUBLE tasking. I think maybe I am going to switch between single and double tasking. And I am actively going to try not to multi-task at all, because then I find that I am not really PART of the things I am doing, rather I am a frantic passenger of obligation. I don’t want to be that person! Thanks for reading and for you comment, Ruth! I am glad to hear your point of view! xx

  • http://renae.myopenid.com/ Renae

    This is a great article. I’m a big fan of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and have been very good at reading his advice, but not so much putting it into action. Once I read your article I decided I could try single tasking for one weekend and see what happens as it seemed much less daunting than forever!
    Here’s how I went;
    In the garden- whipper snipped, weeded and swept. The whole time I fought the urge to run inside and ‘check’ on other things, but I resisted and surprise, surprise- I finished in less time than usual. Likewise for changing the sheets.

    While consciously thinking about concentrating on one task I realise that I usually spend a lot of my day taking sneaky peeks at my phone which just disrupts what I’m trying to achieve.

    I did admit to a little bit of multi-tasking… feeding my baby is a great time to pull the phone out and try to tweet one handed… or is it? It takes much longer and there’s so many typos I’m embarrassed to put my name to it.

    Lessons learned? Having a phone with the internet on it is a major distraction for me and interrupts nearly everything I do. Other double-tasking things like eating a piece of toast while feeding bubba doesn’t have a negative effect, but the internet? Oh yes. From now on I’m going to try and avoid continually reaching for the phone and just allow a block of time on my actual PC each day to catch up.

    Thanks you for assisting to confirm what I’ve been avoiding to admit!

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      Oh WOW. See. This is good. A total case study, with JUST the same sort of results I got. I totally agree that single tasking gets some tasks done WAY quicker (and better!) than multi tasking. AND YES, the internet is a HUGE distraction…. and if we limited it to more efficient focused blocks of time, the other stuff we are trying to get done whilst sneaking internet time would get done a whole lot faster and more enjoyably, I think! I guess the result of all this trying to single task is seeing that we really can get stuff done if we double or single task, and that the main thing is to be MINDFUL of where our mind is, instead of hurtling all over the place in the name of ‘efficiency’ or to get that fancy ‘Champion Multi-Taker’ trophy, like the other ladies. I don’t care so much about the other ladies anymore, because I have found the power of the DOUBLE TASK… and the calm of the SINGLE TASK! Thanks for playing along with me, Renae! I think this experiment is totally paying dividends already in the sanity AND productivity departments! xx

  • www.quietvintagesewing.wordpress.com

    Um well sort of, I was supposed to be cleaning out my guest/sewing room for next weekend’s guests. I put a “An Affair to Remember” on, and as I was cleaning I had to stop and mend stuff so I could put things away so I mended two kids doona, 2 school uniforms, let down a hem on a thrifted blouse. Then I put on “Some Like it Hot” and made a cushion cover, started another cushion cover – not bad hey? Then at the same time I was sorting too small clothes to give away to friends kids, and sorted out a massive bag of bags for Vinnes, and bundles of girly fabrics to give to friends with girl children (alas I have two boys) and by that time it was really late and I was halfway through the “Blue Dahlia” ! Yay – still lots to do so overall – could do better? But it was great fun!

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      Goodness! Wow! I need to lie down after reading that! Sounds like you were maybe double tasking?! If we are labelling things! And it sounds like you had an ace time and got stuff done! Go YOU! I am totes impressed at your productivity! You are a busy bee!

  • http://www.myidealife.com.au/ Nicole McInnes

    Oh shite I was reading this while eating my cereal, changing the TV to Fireman Sam and feeding my 2yo and 1yo boys! #fail LOL Single tasking sounds lovely.

    • http://www.meetmeatmikes.com Pip Lincolne

      YOU are amayzink. You should totally pat your head and rub your tummy and pick up cheezels too! x

  • rebeccamezzino

    So glad you wrote this post! Love it.

    Studies have proven that multi-tasking reduces the quality of your work, reduces your ability to recall the detail in what you did and increases the time you spend on each task overall.

    It’s fine for tasks that require no brainpower (vacuuming whilst gossiping on the phone, or folding washing in front of the TV) but when you need to think, it’s no good. Anyone who’s burnt dinner whilst replying to emails in between tweets will attest to that.

    This subject is so close to my heart that I’ve developed an iPhone app that’s available soon to help people focus on one task at a time. I can’t wait to get it out there and help people!! (I won’t post a spammy link – people can find me if they want to know more! :) ).

  • Quigley

    Does “single tasking” equate to the “slow food” movement in cooking?

    BUt I agree, the challenge is to single task when appropriate (as you said, when listening and chatting to the children, spouse, etc). Because I can’t EVER imagine it would be productive to do anything single task before 9am (ie during the “make sure the kids… dress, brush teeth,not steal each others underwear and socks,… all while… do everyone’s hair, make and eat breakfast, pack lunches, finish animal jobs, keep kids from squabbling and BE NICE!” – perhaps we can call that a SINGLE TASK as there is so much compacted in together?) Thanks! Great article!

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