Focus On One Thing: How To Achieve More By Doing Less

The world tells you you need to do more, more, more. But there’s a lot of research that says doing less is the key to being more effective; research suggesting that multitasking increases the chances that you’ll make at least one mistake. 

In Travis Bradberry’s article Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, he cites a Stanford study that shows the negative impact and the dangers of multitasking.

“The Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers — those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance — were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another. Ouch.”

We’re constantly trying to balance our day to day with multiple tasks. But it’s not always possible to drop what you’re doing and move on to the next thing before mode switching back. And when you can’t, it can leave you feeling like you’re not doing anything right. In fact, the studies suggest that multitasking can actually be detrimental to your productivity. The key is to focus on one thing. The more you focus on one thing, the more you can get done.

The World Tells You — You Need to Do More

If you’re anything like me, you spent your 20’s being told that you should be doing more. You should be hitting the gym more often. You should be buying more things for your house. You should be joining lots of clubs and activities. And you should be doing more freelance work. Don’t get me wrong — doing more and doing it right is absolutely important. And it’s a good thing you’re trying to do more. 

The problem is, we’ve been socialized to believe that more equals better. But as Barry Schwartz writes, 

“Doing more will rarely make us happier. It will rarely make us more productive. It will frequently make us less productive. And, it will generally drive us crazy.” 

We’re making productivity an outcome based on suffering. We’re going to work through dinner. We’re going to answer emails while the kids are swimming 10 feet away. We’re going to try to engage in a personal training session in the gym, instead of going on our lunch break. We can’t take a day off when our back is hurting or we’re suffering from a bout of insomnia. We don’t have the room to relax, the room to rest, or to be irresponsible with our time.

And in the quest for more, we’re no longer devoting ourselves and our attention to singular, individual tasks. 

So what’s the key to making the most of our limited time?

You may feel like you’re accomplishing more, but that’s often not the case. Multitasking makes you spend less time on the most important tasks. If you do a bunch of things at once, you’ll have a hard time getting focused. This means you might be able to accomplish less. But what you do achieve, what you are able to produce as output is going to reach for a higher quality.

Focus on One Thing to Get More Done

About 35% of the time a person is engaged with a task he or she is multitasking, according to the National Institute of Health.

You’ll need to prioritize your tasks before you start, which means you’ll have to focus more. 

I personally don’t use any particular productivity-boosting program. But I have noticed that if I’m not focusing my attention on the most important tasks, productivity is the first thing that goes out the window. I sit down to write, and suddenly I’m looking through the emails, or forcing myself to listen to some podcast.

I don’t work in multiple windows. I work in one full-screen app at a time. 

I actively block apps and programs and websites that I know can become a distraction or keep me a CMD-Tab away from losing my focus completely

I often use a physical stop watch (apps aren’t the answer to everything!) to set timers to dedicate myself to specific tasks. 

Distractions can really mess up your ability to complete a task. The best way to make sure you finish a task is to set priorities. At some point, your brain will become pretty good at prioritizing things. But you can’t do that until you’ve decided what’s most important. How To Define Your Priority First, write down what you’re working on right now. Or just jot down a quick list of your top priorities. Then, decide what order you’re going to tackle these items. Determine the order you’re going to work through your list. For example, is working on a list of action items first, or reading the latest headlines first? There is no right or wrong order for prioritizing your tasks, but it does help to have a plan.

Give up on your manic multitasking

“Working smarter” and “working harder” are two very different things. They require different behaviours and skills. You can be smarter about work without working harder. And you can be tougher about work without working longer. This is just a simple example, but the truth is, you can do much more with a lot less. If you can do something in five minutes, you should do it now. If you can do something in one minute, you should do it now. But you shouldn’t work harder to do more. Work smarter instead. 

Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, angel investor, communicator and creative director. She is the founder of branding and PR firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack.