How to do one thing at once; the art of single-tasking

Smartphones have turned us into serial multitaskers. As a result, we’ve lost the ability to do one thing at once. We don’t know how to focus and we do things mindlessly. The implications for our productivity and mental health are profound.

Here are some everyday examples of things I do at the same time:

  • Check my emails during a phone call (as I wait for a coffee)
  • Listen to a podcast whilst scrolling through Instagram (when taking a bath)
  • Reading an article in the middle of a Facebook scroll (whilst watching TV)
  • Replying to a WhatsApp message whilst reading another (as I listen to music)

The idea that we can be more efficient by doing more than one thing at once is in most cases illusory and deceitful of the fact that it quite simply appeals to our need for distraction. Our natural disposition is for constant stimulation. And that’s exactly what iPhones provide.

Smartphones are the most accessible and reliable source of stimulation we’ve ever had. They serve up distraction on tap.

We have been sold productivity when what we really bought was distraction.

And if we don’t take control they can make us miserable. By doing more than one thing at once we either dilute or entirely extract any joy or pleasure gained from each activity we engage in in isolation.

If the point of having a bath is to unwind and relax, listening to a podcast (a stimulatory activity) wipes out any opportunity to actually unwind and relax.

If the point of checking Instagram is to catch up on what people are doing and saying then scroll mindfully and engage meaningfully in the content you have chosen to follow (at this point you probably realise you need to unfollow).

So what can be done?

I have not personally overcome the distraction of the smartphone 100% of the time, far from it. To be clear, I am writing this because I am particularly susceptible to distraction.

But I have discovered two things that genuinely help me do one thing at once. Ironically, they involve the use of a smartphone…

1. Set a timer!

There is no clear delineation of activity in the era of smartphones. It is not clear when one task ends and another one begins.

Solution: set a timer on your phone to complete an activity.

For example:

  • Writing an article: 60 minute timer set, during this time I don’t check emails, take phone calls, make tea or do anything that isn’t writing an article
  • Bath time: 20 minute timer set, phone/books/magazines out of sight, I focus on nothing but the sensation of the hot water and view of the sky out of the window
  • Check instagram: 5 minute timer set a few times a day, outside of this time I don’t open the app (I don’t always achieve this, but it’s a goal which massively helps reduce meaningless scrolling)
  • Reading a book: 30 minute timer set with no distractions…

…you get the picture.

Setting a timer is a very effective way to set mini, daily goals for spending uninterrupted time on the things that matter to you. The sense of satisfaction and productivity you get when the timer completes is highly motivating. (I also use a timer for meditation, 8 minutes specifically).

2. Prepare a static environment for the task

To maximise the chance you will truly pay attention and engage in any activity in the present moment, avoid doing things ‘on the go’:

  • Need to phone your parents for a catch up? Sit down intentionally in a cosy space at home and make the call instead of phoning as you rush for a train or walk out for lunch. They deserve your full attention. It only takes 5 minutes to genuinely ask someone how they are, listen to their response and share your news. If you want positive, quality relationships with the important people in your life (which we know is an important source of happiness), you have to put in true time. Just as with everything else.
  • Want to read more books? Figure out a time and place where you can sit undistracted, light a candle and go sit there and read (with your timer set). Keep your book wherever that is and leave your phone far away.

You can call them being mindful if you want to use the jargon. Or you could just call them ‘concentrating and experiencing one thing at once in the present moment with your full attention’.

When we learn how to do that we can reclaim the joy of living in the present.

 

 

 

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