Monday, January 17, 2011


I've been mulling over the concept of "single-tasking" lately, as opposed to multi-tasking, ever since I read about this concept online. I'm an extremely distractable person, and tend to do about 10 things at once, especially online. I always have multiple browser tabs and programs open. I was diagnosed in college with ADD, and this is how I struggle with it - I have a hard time focusing. There are times as a mom of two little boys when this trait serves me well. Sometimes many things must be done at once. And kids, of course, throw off the whole equation. I'm certainly not recommending ignoring your children until you finish a layout/the dishes/sorting your sock drawer/processing e-mail. I can't count how many times I've had to stop writing this post and deal with the latest kid mini-crisis. The point is that when the crisis is dealt with, instead of getting distracted by something else that needs done, I re-focus on my original task.
Because more often than not, multi-tasking is an ineffective and ultimately slower way to get things done. Why?

  • It takes longer to do a task in little bits of time, because every time you go back to something, you have to mentally remember where you were at/what you were doing, re-gather supplies, pick up a tool, etc. These few extra seconds or minutes add up.
  • I risk forgetting something important, because my mind is trying to hold onto too many things at once. The more tasks and details I'm remembering and jumping between at once, the more likely I'll forget an important task or component.
  • Multi-tasking is complicated and often stressful, contributing to a chaotic life. Even if things get done, what's the cost to my sanity and my family?
If you're like me, the concept of single-tasking is so foreign that you may need some help knowing exactly how to start. This article on offers a great list of practical ideas on how NOT to multi-task, so I won't reinvent the wheel. My favorite tip is to stop, breathe deeply, and re-focus if I feel myself tempted to check e-mail, follow a link, pick-up the living room clutter, or anything else until I'm done with the task at hand. 

I think the key to single-tasking may be a bit surprising, because it's a favorite of multi-taskers as well: the to-do list. A to-do list is just a tool; how you use it is up to you! To-do lists help to empty your brain of all the stuff ricocheting around in there, and get it on paper. The difference with single-tasking is that once it's on the paper, organized, and prioritized, you forget about everything below your current task. Fold your paper up to right under your current task if you have to. Or use an online tool like NowDoThis, which will show you only one task at a time. The "all done!" message when you finish your list is remarkably satisfying. Remember - thinking about what you have to do next is another form of multi-tasking!
This is my screen capture with the NowDoThis web site running. As you can see, I'm not quite following my own advice - I have 8 tabs open! Whoops...

Living "in the moment" has become a sort of New Age-y catchphrase, a way for people to assert that they want to "experience life" and "appreciate the little things." Few people - myself included - truly understand how to achieve this in-the-moment-ness (yes, I just made up a word. I'm an English major, I'm allowed). I think that the art of single-tasking, focusing on one project or to-do until it's done, can bring me one step closer to appreciating life "in the moment," soaking it all in, and fully enjoying these all-too-fleeting days of young motherhood. 

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