Which describes how you knock tasks off of your to-do list?
- Are you a caffeinated squirrel leaping from tree to tree?
- Or a calculating tiger zeroed in on one thing and one thing only—prey?
If you have 38 browser tabs open, you’re likely the squirrel.
And you’re not alone.
Despite his success, award-winning freelance social media strategist, speaker, and consultant Jon-Stephen Stansel is still learning how to avoid frequent context-switching throughout his workday.
Like Jon-Stephen, many folks face higher stress levels because they’re juggling neverending to-do lists and Slack pings. So, we asked clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Lindy Fields to weigh in.
“Modern work is fast-paced, with plenty of opportunities to get distracted by email notifications, pop-ins from colleagues, notifications on your phone, and the very real pull to try to do multiple things at once, like responding to emails during meetings,” Dr. Fields said. “Proactively planning to single-task means eliminating distractions before they pop up, which takes discipline and work, but is definitely worth it.”
Still, some are baffled by what single-tasking would look like in their world. If that rings true for you, follow along as we dive into what single-tasking is and Dr. Field’s best practices for making it work in your day-to-day.
The art of single-tasking: What is it?
Single-tasking is simply dedicating your full attention to one task at a time—a stark contrast to the tumultuous world of multitasking. When multitasking, you attempt to handle several tasks at once.
While it's easy to talk while you walk, things get trickier when tasks need more brain power.
Instead, Dr. Fields advises ending the constant back-and-forth between tasks. “It can help us work more efficiently, which can mean less stress and a better sense of control over how we spend our time and energy.” It’s simply a better way of doing things.
Ready to embrace the peace of single-tasking? Let's explore the benefits.
What are the benefits of single-tasking?
Like many of us, Dr. Fields had to break the habit of frequent context-switching. “It was uncomfortable at first,” she said. “But over time, it became more and more routine, reinforced by how much better I was able to focus, get into the state of flow with a project, and get stuff done—all while feeling less stress."
While single-tasking feels less stressful, multitasking leaves you feeling like a bundle of nerves. And the outcomes of multitasking barely move the needle. According to Harvard Health, multitasking often results in:
- More distractions
- Less productivity
- More errors
- Lower scores on information recall tests
All of these happen because the human brain can't fully focus on more than one high-level task at once.
On the other hand, single-tasking helps you gain the following:
- Increased focus: All your attention on one task leads to higher-quality work.
- Enhanced productivity: Interruption-free focus helps you finish tasks faster.
- Reduced errors: Fewer distractions mean fewer mistakes and higher quality of work.
- Improved mental health: Your overall well-being gets a boost because single-tasking helps people experiencing burnout or impaired executive functioning.
Even though it’s uncomfortable to power on despite the urges that tempt a short attention span, the benefits of single-tasking far outweigh those of multitasking. It's a habit that can lead to deep work and a flow state. Knowing which tasks need that kind of attention will help you determine when to use single-tasking.
Which tasks are best suited for single-tasking?
When your to-do list is as long as a CVS receipt, it feels like you need to do everything, everywhere, all at once.
Even experts like Dr. Fields experience it. “I completely understand the pull to multitask—I’ve been there,” she says. “But, the research is clear. Our brains are more efficient at single-tasking instead of multitasking.”
So, when should you opt for single-tasking over multitasking? Single-tasking really shines in scenarios like these:
- Complex problem solving: Like a focused chess player strategizing your next move, you can dive into intricate problems without the mental clutter of dueling tasks.
- Creative tasks: Channel your inner artist when you can give your full, undisturbed attention to your work, like a painter absorbed with a masterpiece.
- Learning and studying: It's akin to losing yourself in a good book. Single-tasking leads to better understanding and retaining complex subjects.
- Detail-oriented tasks and quality control: Just as a jeweler meticulously inspects each gemstone, precision tasks need your undivided attention.
- Time-sensitive and low-flexibility tasks: When there's a tight deadline and little room for error, single-tasking ensures each task gets the attention it needs. Imagine a pilot landing a plane—there's no room for split attention there.
Notice the common denominator? They all require time and space for deep focus.
But single-tasking can feel easier said than done. As Dr. Fields puts it, “Single-tasking feels challenging because it involves prioritizing the one most important thing in that moment and proactively working to keep all other tasks and distractions out.”
It's all about working smarter—not harder—and being intentional with your time and attention.
A step-by-step guide to single-tasking
Learning to single-task is a lot like picking up any new habit. It requires practice and consistency. Here is the single-tasking workflow Dr. Fields follows:
- Identify 2-3 top priorities each day.
- Schedule dedicated time to focus on each priority when your concentration is sharpest and distractions are minimal.
- Cut distractions by setting social media notifications to silent, putting your phone on do not disturb mode, and placing it out of view.
- Find a quiet workspace free of distractions and give your work your full attention.
- Take regular breaks after about an hour of dedicated work. Since working for long periods of time without rest can be counterproductive, schedule at least a five-minute break.
Finally, keep in mind what works for Dr. Fields might not be a perfect fit for you. According to Dr. Fields, "There is no 'perfect' routine that works for everybody, and often what works best for us can change depending on the situation and circumstances.”
That’s why keeping a growth mindset is key as you figure out your single-tasking groove.
10 tips and best practices for single-tasking
After all, single-tasking didn’t come naturally to Dr. Fields either.
“In my graduate courses, I learned how our attention is vulnerable to various factors—with attention impacted by distracting environments, stress, poor sleep, and the list goes on,” she said. “This sparked a change in my work style, where I am very intentional with my focus and priorities. Now, I use time-blocking for tasks, intentionally limiting distractions and focusing on one task at a time.”
Inspired by Dr. Fields’s routine and other best practices, here are ten tips to sharpen your single-tasking skills:
- Start small. Don't try to overhaul your work style overnight.
- Keep a task and distraction journal for insights and self-awareness.
- Delegate tasks whenever possible to keep your workload manageable.
- Meditate to enhance mindfulness and train your brain to focus longer.
- Clearly define objectives for each task and know what success looks like.
- Reflect regularly on your single-tasking approach and tweak it as needed.
- Use time blocking or the Pomodoro technique to limit your focus time.
- Establish small rituals before each task to signal focus and create task-specific environments or sensory anchors like playlists of focus music or ambient sounds.
- Manage stress to keep cortisol levels in check and preserve your working memory.
- Conclude tasks mindfully and enjoy what you achieved by recording your reflections.
While planning and being intentional with your schedule can help limit distractions, this is a challenge if you’re working in close quarters with others. So, Dr. Fields suggests planning for it. Here’s where you can start:
- Close your office door.
- Block time on your shared calendar.
- Communicate with those around you that it’s time for you to focus.
- Acknowledge when you may need to reschedule a task for a quieter time.
Most importantly, Dr. Fields suggests accepting that distractions will happen and being flexible with your routines. “Life is busy, and there will always be situations where we get distracted despite our best efforts to single-task."
Bring single-tasking serenity to your screen with Sunsama
The journey to better focus and productivity doesn't need to be a solo venture—technology can lend a helping hand. For example, Sunsama's Focus Mode and Focus Bar automate the elimination of digital distractions.
Imagine a sticky note behind your computer reminding you to stay on track. That's what Sunsama's Focus Mode is, but better. Sunsama is an all-in-one digital daily task manager with a Focus Mode feature that presents a minimal, focused view of your current task. Since you can’t see anything but your task, it helps you zero in on what matters.
Then, stay committed to your task by switching on time tracking while in Focus Mode. You can also navigate seamlessly between different tasks using arrow keys without leaving the peaceful bubble of Focus Mode.
And don't worry about toggling between your other tech tools. Even outside of Sunsama, its Focus Bar ensures your current task remains visible.
Ready to bid multitasking goodbye and embrace the power of single-tasking? Start your 14-day Sunsama free trial today and discover a more focused, productive workday.