One Thing at a Time: 7 Ways to Single-Task

written by Dan Silvestre
Focus, Productivity

one thing at a timeYou have many goals you’d like to achieve. So why would you want to do one thing at a time?

You want to become more productive so you read all these tips online. You find ten that could really change your life. And because you’re excited for the change, you try to start ten habits the same day.

All of us have done it at least once, so you probably know how it ends. You don’t do well at any of them.

That’s why multitasking is counterintuitive. It turns out that the fastest way to achieve everything is to do one thing at a time.

  • How do experts become so successful? They train one skill at a time
  • How can entrepreneurs do so many things? One habit at a time
  • How do millionaires create wealth? One income stream at a time

You now know the secret to do more with less. The seven following strategies will show you How.

#1 Context Switching

If you try to go from one activity to another, you’ll still be thinking about the first one. Even if you’re not multitasking, you still need to disconnect from the previous task.

The following tips will help you disconnect from your previous assignment and help you go on:

  • Take a 15-minute break and have a walk
  • Reset your brain with 5 minutes of focused meditation
  • Have a casual conversation with someone
  • Write down what you’ll do next and schedule it
  • Have a snack without checking the phone

Here’s the thing:

Make sure you 100% finish the task so you don’t have to switch back later. If you have to backtrack, that’s multitasking.

Once you stop thinking about the previous task, that’s a sign that you’re ready for the next one.

#2 Organize Projects Weekly

Chances are you want to achieve more than one project, preferably all of them at once, ASAP. But if you work on multiple projects, you won’t progress as much as if you only did one.

It’s not that you can’t do it, but you don’t want to progress slower in other areas.

Here’s what we know:

  • Out of all your projects, only one is the most urgent
  • Some are more important than others
  • You enjoy working on some projects more than others

To focus on one thing finish the high-priority project first.

It doesn’t matter what project you like the most. It’s hard to enjoy anything when you’re stressed about an urgent deadline.

That’s why it’s better to do the urgent first and stop worrying about it- you remove or postpone the least important projects.

When two projects follow the same objective, you want to keep whichever gets you there faster and discard the other one. But if you need to do both, you start with the one that will have a greater impact.

You create a backlog on the important ones to reserve more time for the ones you enjoy.

If a project takes a week or less to finish, it’s more relieving to just do it. But the big ones take more time, so you have to plan what to do every day. If you have multiple long projects, you organize them with daily time blocks.

I like planning projects in weeks. It allows you to create bigger time blocks.

Let’s say you really want to do Project B, but you need to meet your targets for Project A this week.

You could work on both every day. Or you can focus on Project A from Monday and work until you finish all the work.

Maybe you finish on Wednesday, or maybe the same Monday. What matters is that after you finish, you can enjoy Project B for the rest of the week. Not only it rewards you for single-tasking, but it encourages you to work as efficiently as possible.

#3 Negotiate With Yourself

You probably do this all the time whether you want it or not. Maybe you’ve decided to focus on your work, but for some reason, you’re barely getting anything done.

That adds to your frustration, and you quickly start to doubt yourself:

“Perhaps I should take the rest of the day off.”

“It’s okay to do something else. I can come back later when I’m more focused and finish the task twice as fast.”

“There’s no point in doing low-quality work. It will probably be so bad that I’ll need to start over again. It’s better to wait until I’m more prepared.”

In short, you feel tempted to stop working and do something else.

If I told you to resist distractions, that wouldn’t be single-tasking. Because you’d still be thinking about them when you work. Instead, what works for me is negotiating:

Do I give myself a treat right now, or do I give myself a bigger one tomorrow?

The second option always looks more attractive, and it makes smaller temptations unappealing.

Maybe you feel like procrastinating right now. But wouldn’t it be more appealing to dedicate a day or two exclusively for your distractions? For me, that’s convincing enough to not get distracted during work time.

If you want to single-task when working, you should also do it when playing.

#4 Don’t Forget The Little Things

The art of doing one thing isn’t just about working. It’s how you do everything, starting from the smaller habits.

Let’s say you’re checking emails and messages when you’re having lunch. It may not seem like a big deal. But when you later try to single-task at work, you’ll find more resistance than usual.

When your lifestyle habits aren’t coherent, you tend to multitask at work.

But the opposite is also true. You get better at single-tasking when you do it with the little things:

  • You don’t check email when you eat
  • You never look at your phone when listening to someone
  • You don’t think of work mentally during your free time

So if you find it hard to do one thing at work, start small.

#5 Work With Systems

When you’re not clear on what you need to do, it’s easy to waste time on unclear decisions. Maybe it’s time to work, but your head is worrying about something else. So you’re multitasking mentally.

To stop doing this, you design a productivity system to manage the information:

  • Set a timer to urge yourself to get results instead of working aimlessly
  • Create a checklist or flow chart to know where you are and what to do next to complete the project
  • After you finish working, do a brain dump to summarize what you’ve done, what you’ll do next time, and when. If you write it down, your mind will stop worrying about it, so it’s easier to switch tasks
  • Break down your work into a 2-minute task so you can build momentum fast whenever you need it

If you need half an hour to get into work mode, you’ll find a lot of resistance. A good system allows you to start small immediately and scale fast.

#6 Create an Intentional Environment

In what environment do you imagine yourself working? How do you imagine yourself working on different projects, taking a break, or having fun?

Maybe most of your environments are the same (you in front of a computer or phone), and that’s the problem. When you use the same environment to do everything, your brain doesn’t understand its purpose.

  • Do you feel distracted when you sit to work on your desk?
  • Is it hard not to think of other projects?
  • Do you keep thinking about work when you’re supposed to rest?

Create an intentional environment by :

  • Using one room and device for distractions and another one for work
  • Creating a different virtual desktop for every project
  • Not taking a break in the same place where you work

And for every project, you can customize as much as you want:

  • Use a specific music playlist
  • Work on certain projects at the office and do others at home
  • Assign a different room for every activity
  • Adapt your environment to your work type
  • Use a different to-do list for every project
  • Time block your days
  • Assign a work theme for every day of the week (admin tasks on Mondays, Project B on Tuesdays, teamwork on Wednesdays)

#7 Optimize Your Local Environment

one thing at a time environment

Your brain is constantly analyzing the world that’s in front of you. But that can be a bad thing when you only want to focus on your work. So you’re left with these choices:

  1. You spend mental energy by rejecting those distractions you’re aware of
  2. You remove everything except your work equipment

Without distractions, deep work is easy:

Objects Within Your Range

When you sit at your desk, you shouldn’t work near distracting objects.

Here’s what to avoid:

  • Having your phone close where you can grab it is distracting. Place if further
  • Working next to your bed- you might feel more tempted to take a break. Try to separate these spaces
  • Having junk food easily available- you’re going to eat it and reduce your focus. The best optimization is zero

For everything that helps you work, you do the opposite:

  • Keep all your tools on the same desk
  • Have a bottle of water next to the computer to stay hydrated
  • Use headphones to isolate distracting noises

Objects Within Your Sight

What’s in front of you can either distract you or help you focus. And because the phone is usually the only distraction, it helps to move it to another room (or at least, put it in a drawer or a bag).

This is also an opportunity to make your goals easier to achieve:

  • Don’t just write your to-do list and keep the notebook in a drawer. Open and place it next to the computer so that you can always see what you have to do
  • If you want to work out after work, bring the bag ready and leave it nearby. You’re much more likely to visit the gym
  • Keep a timer always visible, so that you remember to be efficient. You don’t want to get carried away by your thoughts for too long

Should You Ever Multitask?

Keep in mind that it’s sometimes good to multitask. If you combine a tedious task with something more engaging (like podcasts and cleaning), that can lead to better results. The trick is that only one should require your attention.

You may also want to switch projects when the main one delays for whatever reason. So if you need to wait three hours before you can move on with your work, don’t just waste that time. Work on your second project instead. And once the first one is available, you get back to it.

With practice, you’ll become an expert at single-tasking. And there are huge benefits:

  • You’ll get so much done that it will feel like a superpower
  • You’ll get more satisfaction because you know you’re putting 100% on the most important project (and you’ll probably finish sooner)
  • You’ll have more time to work on other projects
  • You’ll still have plenty of free time every week
  • Because you’re more present, you have much more fun in your free time. You come back to work fully recharged

Whether you prefer to multitask or not, you’ll work much faster if you learn how to single-task first.

Tags:: goals, time blocking

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