Musings from the Moonroom

Thoughts on Art, Inspiration, Creativity and Spirit

Single Task vs Multi-Task


In the Great Big Dreams seminar we recently discussed blocks and remedies.  You know those things that keep us from moving forward; sometimes they’re physical, sometimes they’re psychological.

Several blocks and remedies really resonated with me: too much stuff on the brain, multi-tasking and unfocused attention, overwhelm, perfectionism.

I decided to focus this week on the “too much stuff on the brain” and “multi-task and unfocused attention.”  This seems to be a big issue for me, especially when returning from a vacation.  You’re probably familiar with the feeling.  You come home rested and relaxed from vacation only to face all the stuff that you missed while away and now need to get up to speed on.

No wonder people say they need a vacation from their vacation.

One remedy to this feeling of overwhelm is what Christine calls a “brain drain list.”  That is, you write down all the stuff that is bouncing around in your head.  By writing it down you clear it from your brain which may bring a sense of relief.  At least all that stuff isn’t bouncing around in your head, causing stress and worry and making you wonder how in the world you’ll get it all done.

Now, how do you tackle all that stuff you’ve just drained from your brain?

You can create a to-do list.  You can prioritize your to-do list.  You can multi-task.

Or you can choose 1-3 items to accomplish and single-task.  That is the approach I’m taking.

I’ve made to-do lists and inevitably I put too many items on the list and never complete half of them during my day.  That doesn’t lend itself to a sense of accomplishment.

I’ve prioritized my to-do lists and that provided some success.  However, some items always remained and, over time, I again lost that sense of accomplishment.

On Sunday night I write down all the stuff that I have to deal with during the coming week.  From that list, I decide which three items I need to accomplish each day.  I chose three items per day beginning with Monday.  On Monday night, I chose three items for Tuesday, and so forth.

And the question I ask throughout all of this is if I do nothing else that day, which three items can I tackle and feel happy that I accomplished them.

How is this different from multi-tasking?  A sense of accomplishment.

When we multi-task, we often move through a series of items (do a little something here, do a little something there) yet we never fully accomplish any of the items because we don’t focus our attention on them.

With a single-task approach, you determine what you can accomplish and set aside or designate a time frame in which to accomplish it.  Writing this blog entry was on my list for Monday.  I set aside one hour in the evening to write it.  If I know I only have 60 minutes to get a task done, I’m going to devote my full attention to it.  And when that hour is done, I know the task is complete and then I move on to the next item.

I’ve even found that by limiting myself to 3 items I may actually accomplish more.  I tick those three items off my list and may take on another small task.  Or, maybe I reward myself with some quiet time to read or take a walk.

Granted, this approach may not work for everyone.  If you try it, it may feel odd at first.  We expect our days to be busy-busy, running in circles, doing this or doing that, and then collapsing at the end of the day wondering where the time went and asking ourselves what exactly did we get done.

Yet when you give your attention to one task at a time, you achieve so much more.  You complete the task and you give yourself a sense of accomplishment.

And what about those large tasks, like clearing your closet or the garage or those 20 bottle stoppers someone ordered?  Break it down into small chunks of time over the week.  And at the end of the week check it off your list.  Done!

Do I allow for “bleed” time?  Of course.  If I’m on a roll with lots of momentum while working on a task, I’ll keep working on it.  There is no tape that will self-destruct or bells that ring with black holes sucking away whatever it was I was working on.

With this approach, you gain control over what you need to get done.  You decide what you can accomplish when and of those items which ones will make you happy to complete them.

6 thoughts on “Single Task vs Multi-Task

  1. Amy, your post is so timely! I am the ultimate ‘unfocused multitasker’, with a generous helping of procrastination and perfectionism thrown in….Looking back on yesterday’s activities, I accomplished 2 things: I did the weekly laundry (I go to the laundromat so it’s a ‘field trip’), and worked out for 40 minutes at the gym. I hate to go to the gym, so it’s a major chore for me. My ‘unfinished tasks’ included doing some beading (no clear project in mind, just ‘practicing and perfecting’!) and sanding some polymer beads in the rock tumbler (I’m experimenting with combinations of sandpaper and water, again just ‘practicing and perfecting’). Of course, I didn’t make anything with the beads and have no idea what I will do with them! Oh, yeah, and I also went to AC Moore and bought some of the new Sculpey Studio clay to try out. It sits unopened in the shopping bag on the floor of my studio which is a disasterous mess!
    Needless to say, I didn’t have much of a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, since the laundromat and gym are not high on my list of life goals. On the other hand, making a necklace and/or bracelet with my beads would’ve helped advance me towards my goal of selling handmade jewelry…Hmmmm, maybe today I will make a necklace with my sanded beads…I’ll put it on my ‘To Do’ list.
    Stay tuned for a progress report!

  2. Hi Amy,
    Having to constantly multi-task at my day job, I tend to bring that style home with me and it doesn’t work quite as well in my personal life. With an ever growing to-do list, it can get overwhelming sometimes knowing where to start. I love the idea of creating a “master” list and then drawing 3 items from that list for your daily to-do list. My coach used to share a similar idea about concentrating on a single task for 10 minutes and then assessing at the end of the 10 minutes whether or not you want to continue with that particular task. In allowing yourself the choice to stop or continue, it makes the task seem less daunting. You can return to it the next day for another 10 minutes and then, before you know it, the task is complete. Thanks for an excellent post, I enjoyed reading it!

  3. Dora, congratulations for tackling the laundry and going to the gym. Accomplishing the things we like the least is indeed a challenge. Pat yourself on the back.

    Karen, you’re right, multi-tasking at work is all too common and it doesn’t seem to work as well at home (depending on the situation.) Assessing a task after 10 minutes is good; Eric Maisel makes a similar recommendation extending it to 30 minutes.

    Let me know how the “master list” or drain list works for you.


  4. Hi writer,
    Thanks for sharing your ideas with us. i appreciate your kind move. As all of us are trapped in the monstrous arms of procrastination, i am no exception. Majority of time i am not able to decide what should i do? Pile of work around me and i am not able to prioritize on them. I frankly feel from my past experiences that multitasking end up in wasting ones time with results of inferior quality. Make your single goal stick to it even wind is against you. You will come out as successful. I know these thoughts are very difficult to implement but as the great people have said “truth is often not sweet”.

  5. Hi Ashish,

    Single tasking has made my to-do list much easier to handle. I focus on 3-4 things to accomplish each day. If get more done, that is great; if not, I know I completed at least those 3-4 items and consider it a good day.


  6. Pingback: Flylady « Musings from the Moonroom

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