Stop multitasking! Do this instead.

A little while back, I shared about living a more intentional and gentle life, after which I had some really interesting conversations with many of you, who wrote to me to share impressions, comments and questions. What stood out to me is that the actions or changes I mention in these articles may seem unattainable and that without a progressive approach, we have little chance of reaching our goals. 

That really got me thinking that it is indeed necessary to take one step at a time and to implement the changes we want to make gradually, one at a time, in order to maximize our chances of success. And that’s why today I wanted to talk about a proven method that significantly increases our chances of success when we want to change habits or behaviours: doing one thing at a time.

stop multitasking

Doing one thing at a time may seem so simplistic and yet, psychologists around the world have focused on the issue and discovered the many benefits that come from it. Here are some of them.

Doing one thing at a time allows us to…

  • Improve our concentration and productivity
  • Reduce our stress levels
  • Achieve our goals faster.

So doing one thing at a time has become my modus operandi—so much so that on a daily basis, it’s really ingrained in my routine. In this article, I’ll share about this idea mostly in the context of efficiency at work and in daily life. But if you try it, you will understand that it applies to everything: the deep changes we make in the way we are, as well as the simple tasks we perform mechanically every day. I will also touch on how this method applies to the deep changes we aspire to make at the end of the article.

Why choose?

Many of us think (wrongly) that moving on several fronts at the same time allows us to be more efficient, because we think it will help us reach several goals more quickly. But this is completely false! 

A lot of research shows that constantly switching from one task to another is a huge waste of time and energy because we have to refocus every time. The result? We make less progress than if we focus on one task and finish it before moving on to the next.

True—when everything feels urgent, it’s super difficult to know where to start. But this is why you have to listen to your inner voice: in every case, the best solution is to put something aside to make progress.

The key to not going crazy is to focus on ONE project at a time, and to keep a minimum of urgent “things” to manage simultaneously on your list. 

The more things you do at the same time, the less productive you are… And therefore, the more things you have to do! It’s a vicious circle that you can easily escape, by deciding to have the superpower to tackle ONLY one thing at a time.

stop multitasking

How to prioritize and determine the ONE thing to focus on first

My technique is to set a list of 3 priorities every night to accomplish the next day. THREE, no more. 

If you want to know everything, I keep a very long to-do list on a TRELLO board, which I update every time an idea comes to me. It’s like an extension of my brain, allowing me to write down everything I don’t want to forget (including not forgetting to make a medical appointment, book a training session, buy cauliflowers or update my website). When the task is URGENT, I tag it with an URGENT label so that visually, I know I need to prioritize it quickly.

Then, in the evening—depending on what I accomplished during the day and the priorities I have on my list, I make a list of 3 things to accomplish the next day. I write them down in my journal with the date of the next day and sometimes I add in a “nice to have,” a project that I could start IF (and only if!) I accomplished these 3 tasks quickly during the day. Usually this extra project is a long-term project that is best broken up, as the task is heavy and repetitive (for example adding a tag to all the images on my website).

If I’ve accomplished my 3 tasks, I can also allow myself to call it a day, because I’ve dealt with my priorities and enjoying time off is just as important as being efficient 🙂

Grouping for more efficiency

On a daily basis, an effective way to move forward is to group-related tasks and accomplish them at the same time. For example, if you want to clear your email inbox, it’s better to dedicate a full hour to go through all your messages, rather than going back 8 times during the day and dealing with a few messages each time.

In the same spirit, when I have articles to write, it’s much more efficient for me to write 2 or 3 articles at the same time, when I’m in a creative mood. Then, the next day, I can focus on the photos, grouping the creation of visuals to illustrate these articles in one work session.

It’s the same principle if you have the desire to declutter your home. Trying to sort through everything at once will result in failure. It’s best to tackle one thing at a time (either a room, a closet or a box depending on how much time you have in front of you) and complete the task in one sitting. You’ll come away feeling more satisfied and motivated to continue.

stop multitasking

Eliminating Distractions: A Must

The key to successfully completing a task is to eliminate as many distractions as possible, even if it means allowing yourself more frequent breaks if necessary. For example, putting your phone in another room or out of your sight will allow you to stay focused on the task at hand, because you won’t have the reflex to check your notifications or check something spontaneously. In the same spirit, closing most tabs on our computer or shutting off your email or chat applications will allow you to stay focused on the task at hand without being distracted by a notification. If you’re worried about your children’s school calling or missing a call for a medical appointment you’ve been waiting a thousand years for, leave your ringer on in a nearby room, making sure to mute other unwanted sounds that might distract you. 

Set a Time Limit

To help you at the beginning, it can be helpful to set a time limit for completing a task or making progress on it. It’s often more motivating to tell yourself that you’re going to spend 20 timed minutes clearing your email inbox than it is to work towards that goal with no end in sight. Twenty minutes is the ideal length of time to concentrate, that’s why most TED talks last about 18 minutes 🙂 So try to be as efficient as possible and after 20 minutes, you can allow yourself a welcome break during which you can go and breathe some fresh air, hydrate yourself or soak up some sun.

stop multitasking

A “microtask” Day

Once in a while, when I realize that my Trello board is full of small annoying tasks to accomplish (the kind of stuff that takes 2–3 minutes each or the tasks I never feel like dedicating one of my 3 priorities for the day), I force myself to do a “micro-task” day. These might include:

  • Calling the dentist to make an appointment
  • Changing my logo on a specific web page
  • Updating the link in my email signature
  • Paying some bills
  • Cleaning out my dishwasher filter
  • Putting away my thread spools
  • Following up on a message for which I am waiting for a response.
  • Analyzing data
  • And much more.

In preparation for this day, I make a list of all the microtasks that are lingering on my list and decide to tackle as many of them as possible during the day, in 45-minute blocks with a 15-minute break after each block. Usually, this kind of day leaves me with a huge sense of accomplishment, because I no longer have the mental burden of knowing that there are 56 little things I “need” to do for weeks on my list, piling up and not being dealt with. It gives me a brain “reset” that really feels great!

Changing Habits or Behaviours

If we go back to the deep changes we want to make in our lives, this same method applies perfectly. For instance, if you want to learn to let go more easily or if you aspire to start writing in a journal—it’s best to choose the ONE thing you are going to focus on first and dedicate several weeks exclusively to mastering it. 

Let’s take the example of living more intentionally and using a journal to report on how you feel every day. You could give yourself a challenge: every night at 8 p.m. after putting the kids to bed, you could sit in your living room with a cup of herbal tea and take 5 minutes to write in your journal for 6 weeks. Challenge yourself to do this every day for 50 consecutive days, no excuses. Keeping track and having a specific goal, written down in time and space each day, will make it easier for you to get there. Then, after 6 weeks, you will have really integrated the habit into your routine and it will be easier to continue and incorporate a new task or habit into your daily routine. And, if during the 50 days you forget a day—don’t be too hard on yourself, start again the next day rather than focusing on your failure and abandoning the project. 

stop multitasking

Failure is Not Failure—It’s Part of the Process

So these are my tips for being more effective and satisfied on a daily basis. Realizing this was truly impactful for me! And like everyone else, I sometimes fall back into the trap of multitasking and have chaotic and unproductive days—or feeling overwhelmed by too many emergencies and not knowing where to start. Sometimes, I don’t get as much done as I’d like—but being aware of this principle helps me get back on track and regain my efficiency, balance and zenitude a little faster each time. I hope the same is true for you!

Did you enjoy this article? Would you like more of this type of content? If so, please let me know in the comments or by emailing me!

You can also check out two recent posts on similar topics:

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