Surrendering to the single task in front of you

Surrendering to the single task in front of you

The word “multitasking” has been around only since the 1960s when we first found that computers could perform several functions at once. It was a marvel to behold. Since then, we’ve incorporated multitasking into our daily lexicon and decided that we, too are multitaskers.
But we’ve also had plenty of research that shows that humans, for the most part, are simply incapable of performing well doing many things at once. We are, by and large, single-task processors.
So many of us resist these facts. We want to believe that we can handle the email, and the phone, the project in front of us, and the interruptions from others, all while eating lunch and listening to music.
Maybe we can. Just not as well. And often, not as quickly. Still, some researchers believe that we can train our brains to handle many tasks at once.
Perhaps what we can hope to become really good at is being a quick-change artist. To be really good at what we do requires being completely focused on the task in front of us, and being able to switch from task to task capably.
Watch the people who always remember names and details, who absorb information and use it well, who are critical and analytical thinkers, and who have a keen sense for what works. Almost without fail, you’ll find someone who engages fully with what is right in front of her. No matter how menial the task or the low the rank of the person she is talking to, she is right there fully involved. And when the next thing comes, she’s right with it again.
It doesn’t matter if your task is running a school district or cleaning people’s teeth or teaching kids mathematics or selling a product or mothering a child or working at a deli, we all have competing demands for our time, attention, and care.
Since multitasking doesn’t really work (I know, except for you), we have to learn to put one thing down and pick something else up with excellent transitions and with laser-focus.  
You’re engaged with clients, then you’re finishing a report for a meeting, you’re presenting your ideas, and then you’re crunching data for analysis. The morning spins by. But the way that we transition can help us in our next task. Something as simple as a 10-second conscious inhale and exhale where you say in your mind, “Okay, done with that for now. Next!”
If we give each one of our tasks its time and place, chances are that each would be handled with more clarity and more finesse.
photo: Bart Everson
So I say if you’re going to write, write. And if you’re going to make calls, do that. And if you’re going to eat lunch, maybe you’d be more inclined to eat better if you really paid attention to what you were eating.
When you become a quick-change artist, you figure out how to give your full attention to whatever you are doing. If you simply have to eat lunch at your desk maybe you could pause every time you took a bite, look at your food, smell it, and say, “And now, I’m going to eat this food. Oh look, it is cold and crunchy and tart. Excellent.”
When you quick-change back to the work at your desk, you can fully be back to that work. Of course the best-case scenario is that you take your lunch out to the tree in the park and sit there and eat it. The reality is that when we do multitask, we not only don’t do our tasks as well, but they actually take us longer to do them because we have to refocus our energy so many times.
But I know how life works. I’ve got three kids at home. I run a business. I am thoroughly engaged in my life and I’ve got a million things going on at any given moment. I make dinner while I help kids with homework. I talk to clients about workshops while I answer my kid’s question patiently written on a scrap of paper: “Can I go to the library?”
And sometimes we have to do these things. Most of the time they work just fine. But more and more, I’m working to do one thing at a time.
If I am thinking about the seven hundred and fifty three other things that have to happen while I’m talking to a client, I’m not going to give that client the best I can. And I’m all about giving my best to whatever I’m doing. When I don’t? I’ve lost an opportunity to give the world something good. It’s lousy for the situation, a drag for others involved, and ultimately, doing less than my best just brings me down, too. So while I do my quick-change artist impression regularly, for the things that matter most, you’ll find my phone off, my email shut down, my door locked, and me doing my work. When I need my best, I give my full attention to what’s in front of me.
But even without such extreme measures (No phone? No email? No music. Wha??) we can bring some form of this kind of single-focus to everything we do. It may require surrendering to the task. It may mean some deep breathes while you quell the panic of ALL THAT MUST BE DONE so that you can concentrate on the one thing in front of you. It may just mean saying to yourself something like, “I’m here doing this now.” No matter how overwhelmed we are the only way forward is through the pile: do this thing, do it well, and then get to the next thing. And the next, and the next.
How about you? Do you consider yourself a great multitasker? How often are you doing just one thing? How do you move through what must be done? I’d love to hear your strategies.


  1. I was asked a few months ago by a wise woman (you) what I thought about multi-tasking. I said “I can’t do it. I need one thing at a time. I’m not that smart.”
    It was true, it was me. But part of me thought I should be ‘hipper’, able to do so many things at once. Then I looked at all the times I have tried multi-tasking and all the times that it has under served me.
    I am over feeling under achieved, convinced now that what I do best is what I do with unilateral focus be it five minutes or five days.
    Thanks for the column. You are spot on, true. Focus. Amen.

  2. Thanks, Ed. I, too, wish I could do so many more things than I am capable of. I’m getting used to it, maybe.


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