John Jago

A less heard of reason to single-task

There is a lot of productivity advice that advocates for single-tasking over multitasking, and scientific research backs it up. Simply put, the human brain is not designed to literally do two things at the same time.

Imagine reading a book while simultaneously holding a conversation with a friend. There are extremely few people out there, if any, who can fully comprehend what they’re reading and at the same time be fully engaged in a conversation.

While there are not many people doing multiple things in the same instant of time, there are many who switch between things at a rapid pace, giving each their attention for only a few moments. This will seem more familiar to you. Perhaps reading a few sentences of a book, then setting it down to continue a conversation for a few seconds, then while the conversation takes a brief pause, you pick up the book again. Most people can manage this, but both activities will not receive the full attention they deserve.

It takes additional effort for your brain to resume where it left off each time you switch activities. This is where the usual advice comes in. You should not multitask because it’s less effective than giving one thing your full attention. That’s good, but there’s one reason that I rarely see mentioned. In fact, I’ve only read about it once, in a different context. That’s probably why I decided to write this.

You should single-task because if the one thing you’re working on gets blocked—that is, if there’s some complication that prevents you from completing it to the degree you intended—you’ll have no choice but to unblock it. There’s no escaping to something else when you get stuck.

If you allow yourself to multitask, you can switch to, and maybe get lost in, another activity as soon as the thing you were doing first is stuck waiting for something. For example, if you’re figuring out an important problem at work, you message someone about the problem and wait for their response. While waiting, you get started on something else, and even after the other person responds, you continue on the second thing until you decide it’s time to switch back to the first. The result is that the important thing which you were doing takes longer to complete, and you risk having two things started but nothing completed.

Sometimes the first thing really isn’t critical, so it’s okay that it gets delayed until later. But most of the time, at least for me, I’ve seen that putting something “on hold” while I switch to another task is just a way to procrastinate the first. If I don’t give myself the option to multitask, I could probably find a way to get the first thing done a different way, rather than let any small thing hold it up.

There might be a long, daunting project that you’re dreading, and this is where multitasking seems very appealing. If you feel the slightest uneasiness, you can escape to something else, almost indefinitely. Allowing yourself that escape only makes the problem worse, because you’re not forced into facing your fears and figuring it out.

What I’ve been doing recently is keeping the number of “open loops” to a minimum. The more “open loops” you have—things started but not concluded—the more you’re multitasking, and the less effective you are. This is an easy way to measure how much you’re multitasking.

This doesn’t apply to everything, to things like writer’s block. You might need to get out of a creative rut, and the best cure for that is switching up what you’re doing to open your mind to new possibilities. Trying to single-task your way through a block like this won’t get you anywhere.

One way to tell the difference is whether you see a clear path to completion. If you see the path clearly, and you’re still switching tasks, then it’s a sign that you’re multitasking. If you can’t see the path, then maybe you need to switch things up for a bit.

There are many benefits to single-tasking, but one of the most powerful is unfortunately one of the least talked about. Now it’s been talked about a little more, so try it out, and see where it gets you.