Singletasking: Get More Done-One Thing at a Time

Singletasking: Get More Done-One Thing at a Time

by Devora Zack


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Singletasking: Get More Done-One Thing at a Time by Devora Zack

Your Mind Can’t Be Two Places at Once

Too many of us have become addicted to the popular, enticing, dangerously misleading drug of multitasking. Devora Zack was once hooked herself. But she beat it and became more efficient, and you can too.

Zack marshals convincing neuroscientific evidence to prove that you really can’t do more by trying to tackle several things at once—it’s an illusion. There is a better way to deal with all the information and interruptions that bombard us today. Singletasking explains exactly how to clear and calm your mind, arrange your schedule and environment, and gently yet firmly manage the expectations of people around you so that you can accomplish a succession of tasks, one by one—and be infinitely more productive. Singletasking is the secret to success and sanity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626562615
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 05/04/2015
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 830,401
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting, Inc., provides leadership programs to over a hundred clients, such as Cornell University, Australian Institute of Management, London Business School, Deloitte, and the U.S. Department of Education. She has keynoted at the U.S. Treasury, the Smithsonian Institution, John Deere, the National Institutes of Health, and Mensa International. She is also the author of Managing for People Who Hate Managing.

Read an Excerpt


Get More Doneâ"One Thing at a Time

By Devora Zack

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Devora Zack
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-261-5


The Multitasking Myth

I'm great at multitasking.

Multitasking is neurologically impossible.

No man is free who is not master of himself.


Multitasking fails us.

Let me take that one step further. Multitasking doesn't even exist. We'll circle back to this alarming yet scientifically backed claim later.

Why are so many people drawn into the albatross of multitasking? We are collectively thwarted by modern-day plagues such as:

* Too much to do, too little time

* Cluttered life, cluttered mind

* Growing piles of daily demands

* A whirlwind of distractions

Nooo! [Cue eerie Halloween music.]

This list is the tip of the iceberg. Go ahead; brainstorm a few dozen examples of your own. I'll wait here, tapping my foot, growing ever more anxious that I'm wasting my irreplaceable time.

When you return, check out how one guy I interviewed described multitasking in daily life: "What is the impact of multitasking when looking at text messages while driving? Reading the newspaper while talking on the phone to colleagues? Watching NFL Live when your wife wants to talk about schedules? You run into the car ahead of you, agree to finish a project before it can possibly be done, and schedule a business trip on your father-in-law's birthday."

In a fruitless effort to compensate for the tsunami we call our lives, we try to tackle several tasks at once ... making distracted living rampant. We lose concentration, heighten stress, and senselessly fret over items unrelated to the task at hand. We are relentlessly disrespectful to the people right in front of us—colleagues, customers, vendors, employees, cohorts, and our own family.

Fragmented attention (aka multitasking) fractures results and foils relationships.

A Monster in Our Midst

What makes multitasking so enticing?

We know of the dangers of texting and driving, yet many of us still do it. How can we circumvent distraction? Why is it so difficult to immerse ourselves in a single task at a time? Because lurking around every turn is what I call the multitask monster. Many are thwarted by this compelling creature.

One of his primary tricks is pulling our attention toward unrelated obligations as we work. He looms over our desks, lumbering around our workplace, two heads recklessly swinging in opposite directions, daring us to focus on one over the other. As we stare in despair at our stealthily expanding in-box, the multitask monster soothingly whispers into our ears the Sole Solution: "Tackle two, three, four at once! It is your only hope."

Worse, seemingly everyone else has taken on the multitask monster as a revered guide, responding to his every beck and call.

Resist! Stop the madness! Gather your resilience and kick that multitask monster out the door. Multitask monsters are like ocean sirens luring sailors to disaster—though notably less well groomed.

What if I asked you to banish the multitask monster for one day? Could you do it? What would stop you? Can you give it a go? What results will you reap?

One client reflected, "I've always prided myself on being a multitasker over the years, but if I were to do honest self-evaluation today, I realize there are pitfalls to all this madness!"

Another acknowledged, "When I do more than one thing at a time I never do anything particularly well."

The hard fact is that attempting to multitask correlates with low productivity. By definition, doing more than one thing at a time means you are distracted. The only way to do anything particularly well—or, let's raise the bar, spectacularly well—is through full task engagement. As I heard a father sagely explain to his son, a newly minted college grad, "At any given time, you can do one thing well or two things poorly."

The Allure of Distraction

We are distracted. This does not serve us well. Don't blame yourself entirely. Cultural expectations—based on technological advances—have resulted in unrealistic demands. We are expected to absorb a torrent of information from a plethora of media without pause. We are to be constantly accessible.

Many of us react to the alarming pile of demands by splitting our focus among tasks. We are in the midst of an increasing trend toward what Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention"—giving superficial, simultaneous attention to competing streams of information. Living in our own personal big bang, we feel unable to keep pace with the frenetically expanding universe encircling our lives. Again and again I hear, "The more I try to keep up, the more overwhelmed I become."

A slew of people suffer from the misconception that multitasking is necessary to cope with task overload. This always backfires.

Multitasking is misleading. Rather than mitigating demands, it magnifies our problems. Our brains are incapable of honing in on more than one item at a time.

Multitasking blocks the flow of information into short-term memory. Data that doesn't make it into short-term memory cannot be transferred into long-term memory for recall. Therefore, multitasking lowers our ability to accomplish tasks.

We are losing our ability to focus. We are scattered. We are impolite. We cause—and suffer from—accidents. We are unproductive. We relinquish control. We pretend to multitask.

Why did I say "pretend"? Because multitasking doesn't exist! I'll keep sneaking in this factoid until you're ready to hear it. It's make-believe! Think Zeus throwing lightning bolts. Or Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Everybody Loves a Neuroscientist

As any neighborhood neuroscientist will attest, the brain can only focus on one thing at a time.

Allow me to expand. The brain is incapable of simultaneously processing separate streams of information from attention-demanding tasks. What we conversationally reference as multitasking is technically called task-switching—moving rapidly and ineffectively among tasks.

As Dr. Eyal Ophir, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, explains, "Humans don't really multitask, we task-switch ... switch[ing] very quickly between tasks." Although this feels like multitasking, the brain is incapable of focusing on two things at once. Plus, performance suffers as attention shifts back and forth.

Not only that, get a load of this from Dr. Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "You cannot focus on one [task] while doing [an]other. That's because of what's called interference between the two tasks.... People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself."

To recap, actual multitasking is not possible, and what is commonly labeled as multitasking is really task-switching. We task-switch within tenths of a second; we don't consciously notice delays. So from here forward I will alternatively reference multitasking as task-switching, "attempts to multitask," or "so-called multitasking." Occasionally I'll just say multitasking, although you and I both know that is just shorthand. Most defenders of multitasking do not have a grasp of its actual meaning. I don't intend this as a slam. Multitaskers are only halfway paying attention to what I'm saying anyway.

Even electrical synapses short-circuit over so-called multitasking. As one client shared with me, "I met up with my boss as I walked in this morning. He was talking to me as I entered my PIN into the door lock. I said to him, 'I can't multitask,' meaning I couldn't listen to him and enter my number at the same time. He told me multitasking also backfires in the context of electrical engineering, the way circuits are designed. If you try to make a circuit do more than one thing, its efficiency is reduced."

My client's boss has a doctorate in electrical engineering. In fact, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word multitasking is derived from computer processing, emerging in the English lexicon at the time of the first computer.

Multitasking: [noun] 1. Computing simultaneous execution of more than one program or task by a single computer processor. 2. Handling of more than one task at the same time by a single person.

Replacing rapid-fire shifts with attention on one task at a time enables us to achieve more in less time. We wind up ahead.

When Multitasking Isn't Multitasking

Some folks angrily retort, "I can hold a conversation and empty the dishwasher. I can listen to the radio and drive! That's multitasking."

Allow me to begin by saying that I admire your feisty spirit. That said, Dr. David Meyer can clear things up: "Under most conditions, the brain simply cannot do two complex tasks at the same time. It can happen only when the two tasks ... don't compete with each other for the same mental resources."

Multitasking means combining two or more activities, potentially causing at least one to receive inadequate attention. Activities that require virtually no conscious effort can be performed in conjunction with primary tasks and do not fall in the bandwidth of multitasking. "Simple" tasks are automated, low-level functions, including rote activities that do not require concentration.

Engaging in two unrelated tasks at the same time when at least one does not demand conscious effort is not multitasking. Activities in this category vary based on one's experience and surroundings. For example, driving to the local grocery store is a basic, mundane event for many, yet a new driver must give her full attention to the same event. Doing dishes takes no conscious effort, unless this is an atypical chore for you. Most of us can drive and chat with a passenger or listen to the news and tidy up.

Although autopilot tasks vary based on background and intention, activities that may fall into this category include:

* Listening to music

* Filing papers

* Basic food preparation

* Simple repair or craftwork

It's a slippery slope. Unexpected distraction could cause a favorite passage to be missed, a document to be misplaced, a meal to burn, or glue to spill. We can be driving along a familiar route, space out, and miss a usual exit. The actual cause is a brain that temporarily disengages from our actions. The unruly mind spaces out, goes somewhere else entirely, and fails to synchronize with the current mission. It was multitasking.

There is a fine line between engaging in a largely reflexive activity and maintaining awareness of an unexpected twist. Perhaps you can drive to work without thinking ninety-nine percent of the time. But if a car unexpectedly swerves into your lane, are your reflexes ready to react?

Another danger is confusing automated and attention-demanding tasks. For example, people mistakenly believe they can text and walk, remaining fully aware of their surroundings. We will soon discover the fallacy of this belief.

Although there are instances when engaging in two noncompeting activities can be beneficial, choose carefully. Squeezing a stress ball while on a conference call can be a positive release, whereas checking email is a distraction. Stretching while watching a television show is far more beneficial than just sitting on the couch. Listening to upbeat music while exercising can heighten the effectiveness of a workout, although conversing or reading while on a treadmill typically reduces calories burned. Engaging in two noncompeting activities when at least one is automatic is generally harmless; pursuing competing tasks can exact a very high toll.

The Price We Pay

Raise your hand if you have observed people doing any of the following:

* Colliding with others while looking at a phone

* Not driving when the light turns green

* Playing games on handheld devices at professional events

* Not noticing when arriving at the front of a line at a shop or café

These minor irritations are the tip of the iceberg.

Multitasking takes a terrible toll.

In the United States, distracted driving kills tens of thousands of people each year, with an economic toll from injury and loss of life amounting to $871 billion annually. Distracted driving and driving under the influence (DUI) are nearly tied as the top two causes of deadly car crashes. DUI accounts for 18 percent of deaths in motor vehicle crashes, with distracted driving a factor in at least 17 percent of fatal vehicular accidents. The true percentage is likely much higher. Distracted driving is underreported, because police have difficulty identifying whether distraction has been a factor.

Texting While Driving

The American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety cites handheld phones as a major safety problem. According to a 2014 AAA study, more than 67 percent of U.S. drivers regularly talk or text behind the wheel, despite acknowledging the associated risks.

But, as AAA Director of Traffic Safety Jake Nelson notes, "Using your phone while driving may seem safe, but it roughly quadruples your risk of being in a crash.... None of us is immune to the dangers of distracted driving. The best advice is to hang up and drive."

Texting While Walking

Texting while walking also poses a serious safety issue. A major danger stemming from texting and walking is that pedestrians believe they have it under control. In reality, "when texting, you're not as in control with the complex actions of walking." Paying attention to the phone instead of one's surroundings can be catastrophic.

The most common categories of typical pedestrian distractions include:

* Manual—physically doing something else

* Visual—seeing something that distracts you

* Cognitive—mulling over thoughts in your head

Conduct an experiment next time you are strolling with a colleague using his handheld device. (You, obviously, are walking unhindered, well adjusted, and blissful, thanks to this book.) Gently suggest that he put the device away so as not to step accidentally into oncoming traffic or bash into an innocent passerby.

Does your colleague gratefully reply, "Cheers, mate! Thanks for the helpful reminder. You just saved my life! Lunch is on me!"

Or does he mutter distractedly under his breath, "Relax. Don't worry. I'm fine. I know perfectly well what's going on around me."

When a walker gets whacked upside the head, it's always the other guy's fault. Regardless of who's to blame, the fact remains that the number of injuries involving pedestrians on their mobile phones more than tripled from 2004 to 2010.

Accidents stemming from being distracted, such as texting and walking, result in a particularly high percentage of head injuries and fatalities. As a public service campaign in Washington, DC, reminds drivers, "Pedestrians don't come with airbags."

Preoccupied people fall down stairs, trip on uneven pavement, and walk into traffic.

Distractions While Learning

Multitasking weakens our ability to concentrate. We are collectively losing the ability to sustain prolonged attention, and distraction results in knowledge less flexibly applied in new situations. The capacity to apply knowledge from one context to another is called transference. Attempts to multitask reduce this ability.

In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet has changed how we process information. Although the Web enables us to find data with greater ease than when we perused periodicals at the local library branch, it hurts how we absorb and retain data. Scanning a screen has largely replaced reading a page, yielding shallow learning and poor retention.

We will delve deeper into these implications in part 2.

Working While Distracted

Repeatedly dropping and picking up a mental thread results in greater mental fatigue and more mistakes than deep immersion in a single task. When we are distracted, the brain processes and stores information ineffectively. Multitasking—constantly switching between tasks—negatively affects concentration. Task-shifting is the antithesis of concentration. Multitaskers exhibit a lower ability to concentrate and are correspondingly less efficient.

Wait, there's more. Multitasking also exacts a toll in three additional areas:

* Quality of life

* Relationships

* Everything else that matters to you

No big deal.

Generational Edge?

I am frequently asked whether young people have an edge when it comes to multitasking. Does growing up in a high-tech world make one better equipped to do several things at once? It does not. As Douglas Merrill put it, "Everyone knows kids are better at multitasking. The problem? Everyone is wrong."

College and high school students have the same memory limitations as adults. Regardless of age, we understand and recall less when task-shifting. Poorly acquired information results in a weak ability to transfer and apply concepts. Learning to concentrate is a life skill.

As a University of Vermont study revealed, non-course-related software applications on student's laptops are open and active more than 42 percent of the time they are engaged in schoolwork. The level of distraction among university students is epidemic.

The younger generation has a wildly inflated idea of how many things they can attend to at once. Young people who attempt to perform two challenging tasks at once are deluded, because complex brain functions compete for the same part of the brain—the prefrontal cortex. It is difficult for individuals to self-evaluate how well their mental processes are operating, because the processes are unconscious.

Texting, messaging, and being online while in class or doing homework has a negative effect on grade point averages because, as a Harvard study revealed, divided attention hinders our ability to encode information. The result is we remember less, or nothing at all. So-called multitasking behavior "leads to a lower capacity for cognitive processing and precludes deeper learning."


Excerpted from Singletasking by Devora Zack. Copyright © 2015 Devora Zack. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The Multitasking Myth
Chapter 2. The Singletasking Principle
Chapter 3. Your Mind
Chapter 4. Your Days
Chapter 5. Your Interactions
Chapter 6. Action ≠ Results
Chapter 7. Home Sweet Home

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Singletasking: Get More Done-One Thing at a Time 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
RaggedyJaney More than 1 year ago
Singletasking: Get More Done One Thing At A Time by Devora Zack I opened the first page of this book, Singletasking: Get More Done One Thing At A Time and that was it. I had to read the rest of the book!  Reclaim your life – stop trying to multitask! One of the main reasons we try the ‘multitask method’ toward progress is because we mistakenly think we can do one thing, while also doing another or maybe three others. That idea sounds feasible, but is in fact an entirely false assumption. While humans are capable of doing two passive things at one time, like eating and watching TV, trying to engage in two complex tasks reduces effectiveness and efficiency.  Multitasking is a myth, as we learn quite well from Devora Zack. Multitasking is really task switching, which means rapidly moving between tasks. We can effectively, in most cases, participate in activities that require very little conscious effort. Multitasking is when two complex tasks compete for the same mental resources. Efforts to multitask put a drain on brainpower and yield ineffective results for all tasks pooled in that time warp.  Singletasking is a principle. It means being here, now, immersing yourself in one thing at a time. Singletasking commits you to one thing so you are laser focused with all energy devoted to that task while you work on it. Multitasking (task-switching) means you are preoccupied and that leads to being ineffective and even dangerous – texting and driving. The first step in singletasking is awareness. Be attentive, be focused, be present.   Take the assessment test, which helps you determine how you’re doing as far as being focused and present.  If productivity is important to you, multitasking will not be.  Regain control.  This chapter begins with Myth: Multitasking demonstrates competence. Reality: Singletasking demonstrates discipline and focus. I have long been a seeker of competence and I’ve done my fair share of trying to multitask. I see now that had I focused on one thing at a time, my competence would have increased, probably exponentially.     Your mind is where everything starts. Focus is challenged by external stimuli. It isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to control distractions which proliferate in the form of devices, the Internet, email, and clutter itself. To be able to think and concentrate, create a structure to make it easier to become mindful and focused.   Are your days regimented and guarded against distractions? My proclivity to be distracted is stronger than my ability to focus. When you read the book, do the assignment. For three days, list what you do and the time increments spent on each task. Be sure to track everything because you will see that distractions are prolific. In fact whether you work from home, in an office, classroom, coffee shop or studio, these truths apply to you.  Then take the advice Devora offers and put her tips for avoiding distractions into your routine. Reading this chapter is the first step, but the summary is where the principles of singletasking are cemented. Practice, Practice, Practice.   Your interactions as a singletasker allow you to give your full attention to others. Be present, in the moment, so when you are helping others, they get your full attention. Actions speak louder than words. If people in your family or people at work are your priority, treat them as though they are. Some tips from the masters: Be attentive. Be respectful. Listen with full attention. Unplug! Yes, that’s right.  Recall what matters Actions do not equal results. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Never confuse action with activity.” In today’s vernacular we think our effectiveness is measured by the number of tasks we’re doing at once. In fact, what we should be doing is separating what we are doing and when we are doing it so we have time to do more, in less time, at higher quality because we are focusing on one task at a time.  Take time for introspection. Convert some of that web-surfing time to personal reflection time. Ditch workaholic tendencies. In our efforts to ‘save time’ we trick ourselves into thinking the way out is to multitask – which isn’t a solution at all. Why is there never enough time to do something the first time but there is always time to do it over? That’s the result of multitasking.  Ultimately, it’s singletasking that creates the breathing room. Unplug from technology, take a walk, write with a pen and paper, have a conversation with cell phones turned off. Slow down.  The extent to which you immerse yourself in one experience at a time impacts everything from your relationships to your personal fulfillment. Make a choice, then stick with it. Get more done, one thing at a time.  And as it turns out you do have enough time after all.  This book was given to me, but I would gladly purchase my own copy. The content was presented by an expert in getting things done, one thing at a time. This book wasn’t just a volume on theory, but the author had proof to back it up. Devora Zack has done the research, which she shares in language even I could understand. “Stress associated with trying to multi-task shrinks brain neurons, reduces problem solving, and decreases emotional regulation, resilience, and impulse control.” Let’s begin . . .
JudithZ More than 1 year ago
As a lifelong multi-tasker, this book made me seriously stop & reconsider! It is written with humor in a very engaging way. It was a quick read yet will have me thinking for a long time afterwards. Very impactful