Diary, phone, laptopWe’ve all heard about multi-tasking. The chances are that you’re doing it right now.

You might be sitting in a meeting room waiting for the action to start. You maybe introduced yourself to the new arrival who entered the room a minute ago before breaking off to just check your email. Finding nothing urgent had arrived since you last checked your inbox four minutes ago you took a sip of coffee and turned to social media, again no updates. Seeing my website address on the screen in the front of the room you came to my blog …

Or maybe you’re in your office trying to write that report. Feeling a bit stuck you were relieved to see notification of an email newly arrived in your inbox so off you went and checked it. Nothing urgent, not even very interesting so back to the report… still blocked. So what was that reference you were going to look up – Google to the rescue! And maybe your keywords brought you directly or more likely, indirectly via a number of other websites and references to my blog.

Scenarios like this play themselves out many times each and every day. Papers, laptops and phones compete very effectively with real people for a slice of our divided attention – and the price we pay is a distracted lack of focus.

When our intention is to “get stuff done”, this lack of focus has a very high price. We most likely have little or no awareness of it but our productivity can decrease by 40% simply as the price we pay for rapidly switching between a number of different tasks.

Organising our thoughts, reading, filtering information, choosing a point of focus, becoming aware of our dissatisfaction as it turns into distraction and then moving tasks once more. Each of these processes has an energy demand and this particular piper must be paid from a limited fund of energy.

Not only is this not productive, for the most part, it’s not fun either. When we are switching between tasks and are unable to settle we don’t feel good. So what’s the solution?!

If the goal is to be productive, then focus on a task. Depending on your priorities at the moment it might be the most urgent task or maybe it’s the most important task.

Occasionally there’s a case to be made for starting with the most annoying or unpleasant task if completing that task will allow your mind to settle later – it’s the mental equivalent of stopping to take that piece of grit out of your shoe!

Prioritisation is the subject of a totally different blog post so, at the moment, let’s simply agree that you can identify and choose a task or a small number of tasks that you want to tackle today.

Then block out some time and set a timer. How much time depends on the nature of the task. If the task is important and will require a lot of mental focus than you might need to block out several hours, a morning or even a day. You need to be realistic and pragmatic as you do this. Sometimes setting aside large blocks of time for deep thought is the only way that important ideas come to birth, project plans materialise or significant numbers of words get put down on paper.

The pragmatic bit emerges because often we find that we feel we should spend all day writing that report/paper/book yet in reality we find that we’ve only ever got 2 hours worth of creative energy in us so with hindsight we find we spread our 2 hours of creative writing in amongst a further 4 hours of completely faffing around. Sometimes the faff is a part of the process, often it’s just a consequence of our own unhelpful decision to spend all day doing this.

Most people find that blocks of time between 1 and 3 hours are really helpful for productive focus. If you choose a block that’s longer than an hour, remember that you’re likely to benefit from a short break after 45 minutes. Stop, stretch, get a glass of water. It really can help your productivity to simply kick back and rest for 10 minutes.

Then serial single tasking is about working your way strategically from one block of time or one set of tasks to the next.

So my day today looks something like this:

  1. Follow-up client emails from yesterday afternoon – deal with urgent issues now, flag important issues for later (important for my business) 30 mins.
  2. Book Art & Craft workshops for next term – (important for someone else but “getting the grit out of my shoe” for me) 15 mins.
  3. Coffee – 15 mins.
  4. Blog post writing (important for my business) 90 mins.
  5. Domestic tasks – (neither important nor urgent but gets me away from my computer!) 30 mins.
  6. Lunch – 30 mins
  7. Check emails mark those for follow-up later, social media etc 30 mins.
  8. Book writing/editing (important for my business) 90 mins.
  9. Follow-up on emails from earlier (30 to 60 minutes depending…)
  10. Send out information to clients re-upcoming workshops – 30 mins.

The beauty of this is that I know everything has its place. I don’t need to worry about emails – they have their scheduled slots. I don’t need to fret that I’m not writing blog posts nor editing my book. They both have their slots. If either blog posts or editing was overwhelmingly more important or had an urgent deadline I’d simply schedule that same activity in both the morning and afternoon slot.

Now, I might find that I get distracted – I am only human after all! So, if I realise I’m distracted, I simply decide to put the distraction away and get back on track.

If I get deeply engaged in a task I can decide to either continue to go with the flow if the flow is productive and in service of my overall goals for the day or I can decide to stick with my plan.

If something urgent or important arises during the day I can change my plans but I don’t want to let myself drift…

So, for me, serial single tasking is an effective strategy for getting a number of different things done, having a focus, allowing me to change focus and be flexible while minimising the temptation to be distracted.

How does serial single tasking work for you?