The power of doing only one thing at a time

The power of doing one thing at a time - Google search in a browser window

Question: How many internet browser windows/tabs do you have open right now?

(Likely) Answer: 4? 5? 6? More than you need? Simply put: too many.

Why? Simple: We forget that 98% of humans cannot effectively multitask and do not realise that constantly switching between tasks massively reduces our ability to focus and be productive!

This is obviously not a new phenomenon, but it is one that happens time and time again. Who hasn’t wished that there had been more hours in the day and wondered why they didn’t manage to get through everything they had planned to? Part of the answer to this enduring riddle derives from our collective inability to estimate how long things will take to complete, a mental blind spot termed the “planning fallacy” by psychologists Kahneman and Tversky in their book “Thinking: Fast and Slow”. The planning fallacy simply shows that we constantly oversimplify the environment we live in and hence don’t take into account numerous factors that will end up increasing the amount of time needed to complete a task.

The rest of the answer is likely down to an individual having too much Work In Progress (WIP) at a given time.

There are a couple of parts to this:

  1. We are often over-worked in our professional lives and fear the consequences of saying no when asked to take on more, hence we simply have too many work tasks (projects/meetings/calls/reports etc…) in-flight: in other words, we have too much WIP. This means that even if we were at our most productive “zen” state, we skipped lunch (as apparently this helps…) and we worked late, we still wouldn’t be able to get it all done.
  2. We lose considerable amounts of time when switching between those in-flight work tasks, for example by helping other people out at work, or simply checking Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat/Whatsapp/BBC Sport/Fantasy Football etc… For it is not just the time lost to these activities that will see your day evaporate, but crucially the mental capacity taken up by switching between them, which is difficult to quantify. Studies have shown that for most people, spending 5 minutes on Facebook will actually lead to 15 minutes of downtime, as your brain struggles to get back to what it was previously thinking about. This not only has a drastic effect on your productivity, but it will also sap your daily mental energy and mean you feel tired and stressed much more quickly (hence making the overall effect even more profound)! Dan Ariely, a behavioral economics and leader in this field, describes this perfectly:

Now, you probably think that the delayed cost of switching is negative.  That switching actually helps you.  That once you get back to your main task, you are hyper-energized and ready to really get down to business.  This belief in “switching helps” is the reason that many people switch so often. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case.  Most likely, once you are back, for the next ten minutes or so, your engagement with your complex task is only partial, and you are not yet fully back into it.  The reality is that even when you are back working on your main task — for a while longer — you keep on paying a low-productivity-price for your task switching.

Jeff Atwood (founder of the programming Q&A site Stack Overflow) takes this one stage further and using research by Gerald Weinberg  (from his book “Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking”), shows the statistical cost of being involved in too many projects at once:

Effects of context switching

“Even adding a single project to your workload is profoundly debilitating by Weinberg’s calculation. You lose 20% of your time. By the time you add a third project to the mix, nearly half your time is wasted in task switching.”

The research is clear: if you focus on doing one thing until it is fully “done”, not nearly done, then you will be able to complete many more tasks per day. This is known in some industries as “reducing batch size”, but for layman like myself it simply means following the advice of my mother: “you can’t play computer games until you’ve finished your homework!” So if everyone knows this, then why don’t we all do it? Simple: we don’t realise how much time we are losing each and every day.

This situation is only getting worse, as we have more and more means of distracting ourselves. Whereas these were once limited to other people, music and ads, they now include a near-constant barrage of mobile phone messages, instant chat notifications and smart watch reminders. This issue is not going away and is something that we all have to actively manage! Actively is the key word here, as it means it will not come naturally and you will need constant reminders. Humans are just like jackdaws, we love shiny things and are easier to distract that your cat with a piece of string (I myself have fallen into this trap repeatedly just whilst writing this blog).

Chip and Dan Heath wrote a great book on how to initiate change entitled “Switch”, in which they describe how doing things which require us to be attentive and alert (such as being careful to avoid eating unhealthy food when on a diet or communicating with new colleagues) rather than things which can be done on autopilot (tasks that you have performed hundreds of times before) can be immensely draining.

“The status quo feels comfortable and steady because much of the choice has been squeezed out. You have your routines, your ways of doing things. For most of your day, your “Rider” (the steering/analytical part of you) is on autopilot. But in times of change, autopilot doesn’t work anymore, choices suddenly proliferate and autopilot habits become unfamiliar decisions. When you’re on a diet, the habitual trip to for Nachos Bell Grande is disqualified, and its it place is left a decision. When you’ve got a new manager, the way you communicate stops being second nature and starts being a choice.”

The problem is such: when we are tired, stressed and overworked, we will slip back into autopilot. This means we will default to doing too many things at once and therefore achieve less!

As the book suggests (and as we all probably already knew), change is hard, but luckily there are a couple of simple tools and techniques out there to help you try and reduce your WIP. Remember that every improvement should be celebrated (even moving from 4 open tabs to 3) – the hardest part is to start!

The first is the the Pomodoro Technique which has been around since the 1980s:

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set a timer to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings; record achievement
  4. Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
  5. Repeat stage 2, 3 & 4 – After four repetitions (“pomodoros”), take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

This technique can be incredibly effective and is one I have used when I need to get stuff done urgently. There is a quite a large industry building around it and also a set of apps (both desktop and mobile) which actually prevent you from going on social media sites etc… For me this is overcomplicating a very simple technique, but for others it can be the restrictive environment they require to concentrate properly.

The second, Personal Kanban, is more recent and has developed from Lean Manufacturing principles devised at Toyota many years ago. Lean focuses on identifying and removing waste in a system (such as time lost to task switching). Personal Kanban was popularised by Jim Benson in his book of the same name and the idea is simple: visualise all the things you need to do and then prevent yourself from doing more than one of them at any one time….

A Personal Kanban can only make you more productive (or at worst, have no effect). It is low effort, low risk and incredibly simple! However, like any tool, it is not going to do the job for you, but it is a constant reminder to only do one thing at a time and that is exactly what we (the human race) need.