WORKPLACE / MAY. 18, 2015
version 14, draft 14

5 Pros and Cons of Doing Just One Thing at a Time

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Between trying to keep up with the latest news, keeping Facebook and Twitter satisfied that they know our every thought, and arriving somewhere two minutes earlier than it would take to pull the car over and send that text, we all think we’re good at doing everything at once. If by “good” you mean “can”, then yes, we are, but just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should.  Here are 5 reasons why it does and 5 reasons why it doesn’t actually work:

See also: The Not-To-Do List: 10 Habits You Need to Quit Now

1. Pro: Doing one thing means doing it well and probably doing it more quickly

Doing one thing at a time while ignoring everything else (okay, you probably shouldn’t ignore your child) means that that thing gets done as well as it can be and doesn’t suffer because you’re half thinking about the next thing you have to do.  Gary Keller suggests that you schedule your day so that you get the most important thing done while you’re at your most productive, and then "by noon or 1 o’clock at the latest, you’ve had an awesome day [because] you have done what mattered most."

 

2. Pro: It could save a life - yours

You’re driving somewhere and you suddenly remember a call you have to make or a text you have to send.  Even putting aside the fact that it’s illegal, it only takes an instant for an animal, child or other driver to be unpredictable when you are paying attention, so what makes you think you can look away even just for the "second" it takes to speed dial someone or write some textspeak? 

You should make the decision: can the call wait? If yes, do it in the car park when you arrive. If no, pull over and do it. Driving should be your one thing.  Car and Driver conducted an experiment with two drivers, comparing their reaction times with and without texting, with and without drinking, and found that drinking was actually the slightly lesser of two evils:

Don’t take the intoxicated results to be acceptable just because they’re an improvement over the texting numbers. They only look better because the texting results are so horrendously bad. - Car and Driver

3. Pro: Brains are brilliant, but don't abuse them

Your brain is already doing so much, making sure you don’t hurt yourself, reminding you to breathe properly and helping keep your organs working, so why would you task it with anything more than you have to?  Let it work on one thing at a time, and think about it as thoroughly as possible and avoid unintentionally cutting corners or getting burnt out twice as fast – or however many times as fast as the number of things you’re trying to do.  Learning Infinite reminds us that multitasking is for machines, not brains, and that our brains get less efficient just at the thought of multitasking.

4. Pro: The more you do, the more you miss

Are you guilty of texting while walking? Looking at your phone instead of paying attention to the person talking to you? Of course you are, everyone is. Let Gary Turk show you all the things you could stop missing if you just Look Up (it’s long, but it’s worth it.) You might be using your phone to be very productive, but if you step off the pavement in front of a bus or find yourself alone in 50 years, you may not need to look further than the palm of your hand for the culprit. Similarly to the last point, either focus on walking or sit down somewhere to do your work.

5. Pro: You just missed your favourite character die!

One form of entertainment at a time means a better enjoyment of it; just because a THR study showed that 76% of people do take the time to post about what they’re watching while they watch it, doesn’t mean you should. The busier you are on Twitter or Facebook, or uploading pictures to Instagram of the quaint cinema you’re in, the more you’re missing scenes of your supposedly favourite show or the film you’ve been dying to see.  Suddenly you look up and everyone’s laughing at a joke you didn’t hear, or your favourite character is dying and you’re the only one who doesn’t know who did it.  The more other things you do – which tend to then lead to the distraction of waiting for responses – make you more and more likely to miss out on something important.  

6. Con: Silence

If you take the idea of focusing on just one thing at a time literally, then you should work without the radio or your music.  Of course there are advantages to concentrating on what you’re doing, but one study, in which 26 participants either did or didn’t listen to music while completing different taks, found that nine out of 10 performed better when listening to music.

So what music goes with what type of work?

  • Classical music: if your work involves numbers or attention to detail
  • Pop music: if your work involves data entry or working to deadlines
  • Ambient music: if your work involves solving equations
  • Dance music: if your work involves proof-reading and problem solving

 

7. Con: Changing things up keeps you fresh

Skipping from one thing to another – not so fast that everything’s being done badly, but perhaps after every hour or so – means you avoid getting bored and gives your subconscious a shot at thinking about the things you aren’t doing so you can go back to them refreshed and full of new ideas. Berks & Beyond reminds us that getting a bit of exercise and approaching our tasks positively and flexibly can make all the difference.

8. Con: Fear of Missing Out

In these days of everyone being on social media, you get the feeling that leaving it for more than five minutes will mean missing something major; unfortunately, it’s not impossible, which is how we justify having a "quick" look at Facebook.  The trick is to make sure it really is just five minutes: once you’ve wasted half an hour on it, there’s no getting back to what you were doing.  Doctoral student Sooyeol Kim found that a quick break, for an average of 22 minutes throughout the day, can actually make employees more productive and happier and that a smartphone break is simply the modern equivalent to talking to coworkers or having a tea break.

9. Con: You may be doing the wrong thing

Got your to-do list? Great.  Ready to get started on the thing you’ve prioritized as #1? Great.  If you get an hour into it, however, and find that you’re struggling or thinking about #5, then stop and consider whether you should be doing one of the others - especially #5 - first.  To-do lists aren’t set in stone, nor is the idea of doing one thing at a time, especially if you might be making yourself more productive or less stressful.  Lifehacker suggests having a rolling (digital) to-do list rather than an inflexible paper one, in order to easily move things around as priorities change. 

 

10. Con: You're not looking at the bigger picture

Everyone gets the same 24 hours.  Some get more done than others. Why? Because instead of a too-long to-do list, they’ve narrowed it down to the things that must be done for them to be happy, and they’ve ignored the things they want to do, but don’t have to do.  Even with a good night’s sleep robbing you of 8 hours, that’s 16 hours to get things done: if that’s not enough, then the problem is with the list.

The Warren Buffet 2-list strategy.

There is a story about a conversation Warren Buffet had with his pilot in which they started talking about career priorities. Buffet suggested a 2-list strategy that you can easily change from long-term career goals to your weekly goals:

STEP 1: Write down your top 25 things.

STEP 2: Review your list and circle the top 5.

STEP 3: "Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”

It’s as simple as that.  Take your two lists, focus on the top 5 and only do those.  If you have time left, you might want to start working on some of the other 20, but at least the important things will be done and you won’t feel like you’ve failed your day.

See also: Hacks to boost your to-do list.

What’s your style? Do you like to work on one thing at a time and get it checked off your to-do list? Do you jump from one thing to another as the mood takes you? Do you live in the silent area of your library or does silence drive you crazy? Let us know what works for you!

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