Raise your hand if years ago you proudly listed "multi-tasking" as a skill on your resume. My hand is raised. High. I figured it would be one of the keys to a successful career. I was so proud of my multi-tasking I took it so far as to tease others who weren't as good as me at getting a lot of stuff done at the same time.
It turns out, it wasn't the skill I thought it was. Check out this quote from wnyc.org: "Study after study has shown that "multi-tasking" is a myth. Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains that when we think we're multi-tasking, we're really only fooling ourselves. 'You're not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn't work that way. Instead, you're rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go.'" Ouch. Read more about this here.
I have been trying to break my multi-tasking habit for a few years, and along the way, I've figured out some strategies that have helped a lot. Perhaps they'll help you too.
Prevent distractions. Sounds obvious, but I find a lot of people forget to do this. Put away your phone, turn off your email and other applications you don't need right now, inform the people around you that you are focused on something and not to be disturbed. (Telling them exactly what you're working on also builds some external accountability because if they see you working on something that's not that thing, they can call you you out on it. The fear of this might keep you on track.)
Identify your #otat. A few years ago, I started writing down the one thing I was working on. Hashtags were all the rage, so I called it #otat (one thing atta time). I even made #otat sticky notes on which I write the time and the one thing I'm working on. I cross out that task when I'm finished and then write the next thing I'm working on. Other times, I'll be even more explicit and write out, "It's 11:23 and I'm starting the ABC Company proposal" and post that note in front of me.
Talk to yourself. I really benefit from affirmations. Lately they've been less about, "I've got a lot on my plate and I'm handling it," and more like "I'm focusing on this now" or "I've getting back to this tasks." Let's say I'm working on a proposal for a client and all of a sudden I want to check in on how my team is doing. I'll catch myself as I get up to have a conversation and say to myself, "I'm working on the ABC Company proposal" and sit back down. Honestly, this is probably the strategy that is helping me the most.
Be gentle with yourself. It is human nature to be distracted. Beating yourself up about it isn't going to benefit you. I'm learning to be kinder to myself as I build a daily meditation practice. When my brain moves on to something else where it's not supposed to focus, I bring myself back, gently. "My mind is wandering; I'm coming back into focus."
Empty your mind. Saying you are working on only one thing at a time doesn't mean that's all your mind is focused on, because, well, you can't always control your mind. Have a small piece of paper where you can jot down an interrupting thought right away. Just don't act on it right then. Get it out of your brain with a quick note ("Call mom about tomorrow," "Buy blueberries," then get on with your task. (Take this one step further when you're digging into a big project. Get everything out of your brain before you dive into the task. Just make sure you don't use this as a procrastination tool.)
Listen to music. This might sound counter-intuitive, but I have found that listening to certain albums straight through via headphones really helps me channel my energy in the right direction. Instead of listening to a mix, a predictable list of songs keeps me from getting distracted. When I know exactly what's coming next, I don't give it any extra thought. Consider which albums might work well for you. Some of my favorites to be productive to: Graceland (Paul Simon), 1989 (Taylor Swift or Ryan Adams), Sigh No More or Babel (Mumford & Sons) and The Incredible Machine (Sugarland).
Bask in the awesomeness of single-tasking. When you accomplish something because you were singularly focused, note how much faster the task went without distractions. And pat yourself on the back for accomplishing it. When we recognize how helpful single-tasking is to us, we are more likely to do it.
I am going to end by sharing the advice at the end of the article I quoted earlier: "That’s all for now. Single task, friends. Close this tab, decide what you are doing next, and THEN DO IT UNTIL IT’S DONE."
Single-task. It's magical.