You’ve got a smartwatch on your wrist, Siri in your palm, and emails notifications popping up on your computer screen all day long. Nope, you’re not the only one who’s been trying to master multi-tasking all these years.
Yet, the truth is our brains can’t actually multi-task. Why? Our minds are programmed to think about just one thing at a time. So what we’re really doing is switching from one chore to the next and back again…and it’s not helping our productivity. Worse yet: We’re not being mindful of why or how we’re doing each task, because we’re so rushed to move on to the next one.
In fact, we finish about 50 percent less when attempting to tackle a few duties at once, instead of focusing on each one individually, says James Rouse, naturopathic doctor, author of Think Eat Move Thrive and co-founder of Healthy Skoop.
While experts used to give tips on how to improve multi-tasking skills, that approach to plowing through a to-do list is no longer in vogue. What they advocate works better: Being present in the moment so you can concentrate on one activity — and one activity only. In other words, single-tasking. (Translation: Putting your phone away, way more often.)
To help you get more done in less time, de-stress and actually enjoy life a little more, we had Dr. Rouse share his tips on becoming a better single-tasker. So stash away your smartphone, turn off your email notifications and read on for the need-to-know. Your challenge: Do not do 101 other things while reading this article.
7 Productivity Tips for Living in the Moment
1. Start with one change.
Eating lunch while catching up on email; G-chatting while writing a work proposal; scouring social media during a corporate meeting. Are you guilty of these multi-tasking crimes? Don’t worry, so is everyone else. What you should do instead is pick one activity and focus on it, knowing that you’ll see better results from your efforts. “People think of single tasking as underachieving,” says Dr. Rouse. “We have to dispel the myth that if you’re only doing one thing you’re not doing as much.” Putting more energy into one thing really means you’ll get more out of it.
Approach your day-to-day differently by choosing one activity that you’ll solely concentrate on this week. That could mean eating breakfast mindfully, putting your phone in a drawer while checking emails in the afternoon or simply commuting to work without your normal podcast or book. The more you learn to let go of distractions (even during small tasks), the more you’ll be able to expand that streamlined focus into other projects.
2. Encourage single-tasking with others.
“Multi-tasking is contagious,” says Dr. Rouse. “We’re social creatures who see people doing three or four things at one time and we want to emulate what we see. So it’s hard not to multi-task when you’re surrounded by it.” To counteract that, eliminate disruptions when you’re around other people. If you’re out for drinks with a friend or having dinner with your family, put your phones away and turn off the TV so everyone is present for that time. (Seems simple, but do you ever actually do it?)
Having your phone in your pocket or face down on the table doesn’t count, either. As soon as you feel the vibration of a text or see your device light up, your mind will instantly go elsewhere. “No matter how much willpower you think you have, you won’t be able to resist all the other things going on around you,” says Dr. Rouse. “So don’t even allow yourself that temptation.”
3. Begin your day the right way.
Lots of people sleep with their phone by their bed, but we challenge you to put it across the room. That way, you won’t feel obligated to check it before you even put your feet on the ground in the morning. Bringing technology into your sleep space has a way of triggering distractions and stress, Rouse says. Not to mention, it can keep you from getting enough zzz’s. Start your day with a light stretch or a deep breath, so you’re present right from the start.
4. Take a walk outside.
One of the best, most mood-boosting ways to learn to single-task is to get outside more often, says Dr. Rouse. It’s not just the endorphins that will instantly make you feel happier. Walk without your phone and you won’t be tempted to check emails or respond to texts. Then you’ll be able to tune into the sights, smells and noises around you. Don’t have time for a mid-day hike? If you’ve been running around doing what felt like 100 things at once, take a 10-minute stroll outside when you get home from the office. We promise it’ll have some pretty great payoffs, and even if you have more work to do, you’ll feel much more focused afterward.
“The greatest way to avoid distraction is to avoid procrastination.”
5. Schedule time for your toughest task.
Whether you often put off a to-do like writing, drawing or creating lesson plans, set aside the same time every day to tackle it, even if the creative juices aren’t flowing. “The greatest way to avoid distraction is to avoid procrastination,” says Dr. Rouse. If at noon every day, you sit down and just start typing, your brain will adjust to it. Then, the work will flow better — without you feeling like you need to check Facebook for hours until a great idea pops in your head.
6. Give someone a squeeze.
Think about the last time you gave someone a really big bear hug. Time seemed to stop in that moment, right? Whenever you need just a few seconds to get grounded and have a moment of Zen, Dr. Rouse suggests snuggling up to someone to bring you back to the present. In fact, hugs release the hormone, oxytocin (aka the “love” or “bonding” hormone), which can help reduce stress.
7. Never stop trying
We get it, focusing on just one activity at a time can seem impossible. Life often pulls us in different directions, so it’s hard to stay straight. But as long as you keep working at single-tasking — try it with different duties throughout the day or week — the better you’ll get, the more you’ll accomplish and you’ll feel relaxed and productive. Dr. Rouse’s favorite way to look at it: “To the expert’s mind, nothing is possible. But to the beginner’s mind, everything is.” Being a student at single-tasking will make it more enjoyable and easier.