A Master Class in “Single Tasking”

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If you’re anything like me, you’re a multitasker. But I’m terrible at it and there’s a reason for that! Productivity expert Darius Foroux, who gives no-nonsense work advice on Medium, says our brains aren’t actually wired to work that way. Read below to learn why we should all be “single tasking.”

Katie Couric: Why is it so important to focus on one single task at a time? And why will we be more successful if we do?
Darius Foroux: The main reason is that you can’t do everything at the same time. If we study successful people across different fields, we see it takes a LONG time to develop skills, build wealth, achieve goals, etc. That’s common sense, right? You only have so much time and energy. So if you take on too many things, you end up spread too thin. Instead, it’s much more effective to focus your effort on one thing. That’s when real success happens.

This is especially true for money. Most people earn their money over time. Few people make a big financial splash. Forget about the Mark Zuckerbergs and Evan Spiegels of this world. These are people who hit the career jackpot. You don’t need special talent or skills to succeed in life. If you take the long road, achieve one goal after the other, and build up your wealth step by step, you are more likely to live a good life.

In what ways do you think our culture has made single-tasking even more difficult with the constant interruptions of texting, social media, and everything else?  Is technology the enemy of focusing on one single thing?
The first time I realized that technology has a downside was in 2015. Like almost everybody else, I had a smartphone and thought it was improving my productivity.

By that time, I was already using a smartphone for several years. In the beginning, I only used my device when I needed it—to make calls, send messages, navigate with Google Maps, check the weather forecast, and answer emails when I was on the road.

But gradually, I went from “using my phone when I need it” to “using my phone all the time.” And that’s dangerous. If you don’t watch it, your phone will control you, instead of the other way around. Remember that the purpose of a smartphone, or technology in general, is to SERVE us—not to control our lives.

Everybody knows that drinking too much will turn you into an alcoholic. But nobody says the same thing about using technology. It’s not helpful to check your phone 200 times a day. You’re not being productive when you’re watching random YouTube videos for 3 hours a day.

So before you pop out your phone to move on to the next article, podcast, video, or social network, ask yourself: What’s the use? Think more about the WHY behind everything. That’s the only way we can live a purposeful life.

It seems like a simple idea, but why is focusing on one thing actually one of the hardest things we can do in life?
It’s in our nature to be distracted. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our brain has evolved to scan everything in our environment for danger. In our hunter gatherer days (that lasted until 10,000 years ago), danger was LITERALLY around the corner. We HAD to be “multi-taskers.” Otherwise, we would not survive. So we have this brain that wants to do multiple things and is constantly scanning our surroundings.

Back then, survival was the goal. But now, our goals have changed. And that’s why we need to change the way work. Because the work we do in the 21st century requires focus. We’re knowledge workers and need to spend large amounts of time on solving problems, improving our skills, and listening to others. There’s no tiger or elephant around the corner, waiting to eat us.

That’s why it’s unnatural to do only one thing. But that does NOT mean it’s impossible to focus on one thing. With practice, we can all improve our focus muscle.

Okay, you have some great tips on how to actually make this idea work in our lives. Walk me through these steps — the first one is “Manage Your Desires”…
We want it all! A great career, a family life, wonderful friends, awesome vacations, you name it. Now, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to desire good things. However, we do have to control our desires. If we don’t we’re all over the place and chase everything. End result? We end up with nothing.

The natural thing to do for most people is to start setting goals or picking one priority they want to focus on. But unless you have trained your mind to focus on one thing, it’s not a smart thing to do.

You must improve your focus muscle first. Otherwise, you set a goal, focus on one thing, and get back to your old behavior within a week. You want to change your mindset. Go from “I want everything” to “I appreciate what I have.” That’s the only way to live this “one thing” idea. In other words, control your desires.

I recommend practicing Mindfulness or Stoicism for that. Both philosophies talk extensively about detaching ourselves from our desires. I think our excessive desire for more is the reason we can’t focus on one thing. Remove your desires, and you will have true freedom.

All this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t desire to improve our lives. On the contrary, the whole purpose of life is to move forward. So don’t be afraid to set goals and aim for great things. Just achieve one thing after the other.

Next is, “Practice, practice, practice…”
To get better at single-tasking, we must practice. And I recommend starting small. For the next week, only do ONE thing at a time. If you’re a modern human being that is used to technology, that will be very hard. So try this:

  • Go for a walk (or workout) without listening to music
  • Put your phone in Do Not Disturb Mode for the whole day
  • Don’t pick it up when you’re having a conversation
  • When you are working, focus on a SINGLE task at a time (use the Pomodoro method to do that)
  • In meetings, don’t check your email
  • If you find it hard to stay focused, remove social media apps from your phone for the next week
  • And use an app like SelfControl or FocusMe, which block distracting websites on your computer

This is also called being present. The point is to be less distracted. That’s all. And you can practice with anything by doing only one thing.

You also mention that people should, “set one goal per AREA of your life…”
Too often people assume that you should only focus on one thing in your life, period. But that’s not what this strategy is about. It’s about being smart about what you pursue. Yes, you can achieve a lot of things…But just not at the same time.

You can’t build a career, get in shape, compete in marathons, write a book, invest in business, get kids, and travel the world. But you can do all those things in a lifetime.

I stick to one major priority per area of my life. I’ve categorized my life as follows: Career, health, learning, money, and relationships.

That means I never work on more than one major project. I either write a book or create an online course. I also learn only one skill at a time. And I am either saving my money or am looking to invest it (naturally, I’m saving most of the time). For my health, I’m either building strength or endurance. And so forth.

These categories are not based on anything but my own perspective on life. You can categorize your life any way you want. And you don’t need to criticize how others compartmentalize their lives. What matters is that we understand how we categorize our own lives. Otherwise, there’s no structure.

Any last tips on how we can discipline ourselves to stay the course on the “single-tasking strategy?”
Get started today. And don’t be too hard on yourself when you lose focus. Remember, we’re doing something unconventional here. The majority of people still think they can do everything at the same time. But by now, I hope you’ve read about enough examples to be convinced that’s a recipe for disaster. Focus is the key.

And yes, that’s very hard. So don’t be too hard on yourself when you still take on too much and end up spread too thin. See those moments as training. When you lose focus, it means something is wrong. It’s up to you to focus on only one thing, get excited about it, and build momentum.