Multi-tasking vs. Focusing

I’m just 1 person. So how do I get as much done as 3 people? The simple answer I usually give is that I multi-task, but that isn’t exactly true. Sometimes I multi-task and sometimes I focus, depending on my state of mind, the sort of task at hand, and the importance of the task. 

Multi-tasking (doing more than one thing at a time) can allow a person to appear to get more done. However, studies have shown that it can reduce productivity by up to 40%. More and more, the science shows that human beings were meant to be mono-taskers and that divided thinking decreases your ability to problem solve and retain knowledge. This is even more significant for people whose brains are already more likely to be overwhelmed by stimuli or for people considered “heavy multi-taskers.” 


So, knowing this, why do I choose to multi-task at all? The answer is: because there are some times when it does seem to work for me. For example, eating a meal while watching a television show. Earreading an audiobook as I change clothes and brush my teeth or categorize photos on my computer. Listening to a podcast while crafting, completing a coloring book page, or drawing grids for bujo layouts. Writing that next scene of my story in my head and ironing out a plot hole while washing my hair in the shower. If I can do three tasks at once, even better! Like watching a show, eating, and playing a silly game on my phone with the volume off. Or scrolling through instagram while walking in a circle around my living room to increase my daily step count. As long as the task isn’t too challenging or important, multi-tasking in this way allows me to squeeze a little more out of my 24 hours than I would normally be able to. I like consuming media, and there is so much of it I want to enjoy, so multi-tasking allows me to get to more of it.

But there are plenty of times when I put my phone in another room, turn off everything, and focus completely on a thing I need to get done. If I’m writing something for work, trying to learn a new thing I care about, or doing anything of importance, I know that I need to focus on it. Sometimes that makes the process a little faster, because it has my undivided attention and effort. Mostly, it improves the quality of the final result. When I am able to put all my brainpower behind something, I can catch problems I might have otherwise missed or I think of unique solutions. 

That’s not to say I don’t get distracted. I have been known to have 45-minute workouts that last up to 3 hours because I stop to take a sip of water and then suddenly get pulled out of my workout and into addressing an email that suddenly appears more important. Or I’ll take out my phone to take a photo of my cat doing something cute and suddenly I’ve been doom scrolling for far too long. I get distracted. I’m human. I make bad time management choices. But the important thing is that I know these choices are wrong and can identify the negative outcomes in hopes of not repeating these mistakes too often. Present!Kate is constantly learning from Past!Kate. 

Last month, the discussion topic of the small group I’m part of at church was stillness. Though I first meditated when I was in 7th grade and see the benefits of the practice, this was still one of the toughest topics for me to exercise. Doing two or three things at once is normal for me. Doing one thing at a time well is also normal for me. Doing nothing but being still felt like a complete waste of time. It turns out it wasn’t… but that’s a topic for a different article. 

Where do you side on the multi-tasking vs. focusing debate? What makes you more productive?

Photos by Jon Tyson & Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

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