The Power of Single-tasking! How to Let Go of Multitasking

How many of us have applied for a job where “ability to multi-task” was listed as a preference on the posting? Probably all of us. Multitasking is simply “doing multiple tasks at once,” – but there’s nothing simple about it, and, let’s face it, it’s not physically possible. If you have eight projects laid out in front of you and you work on each for five minutes at a time, you are still working on one at a time. Whether you are performing two or more tasks simultaneously (for example, exercising while reading), doing several tasks in rapid succession, or switching back and forth from one task to another, you are multitasking, and you are probably stressed out about it!

Our cultural reverence for multitasking is prevalent in so much of what we do and see. Employers consider this “skill” an asset. Commercials and advertisements market towards “busy moms” or “busy professionals” or “busy professional moms,” showcasing how many tasks can be completed at once by buying a certain product or utilizing a certain app, or joining a certain club. Whether we began to multitask and then began to uphold its value, or whether someone told us it had value and we began to multitask, it’s hard to say.

What we do know is that multitasking can have a negative impact on mental health. When we are in a constant state of switching between and juggling tasks, the stress of doing so can increase or contribute to poor concentration, increased anxiety, poor sleep, and headaches, leading to an increase or decrease in appetite.

Many of us multitask because it’s all we know; we’ve had it modeled for us, we’ve had it touted as an essential skill, we’ve been made to believe that it’s the only way to get everything done. Over time, it becomes our default to multitask, even if we feel stressed out about it or notice that our productivity isn’t as strong as we want it to be. There are a few reasons why this can occur.

Why do you get caught up in multitasking?

1) You think you are always behind:

Your list of tasks is long and repetitive. Some of the things that have to be done more than once per day (meal preparation, dishes, etc.) continue to cycle onto your list. Add to that daily and weekly tasks, such as grocery shopping, cleaning, laundry, activities, work, hobbies, classes… It is very easy to get caught up in the idea that everything you are tasked with is normal, and you can and “should” be able to get it all done. The should statements, such as “I should be doing more”, are often born out of our comparison to others who are living very different lives. They are not rooted in the reality of our situations, our goals, our values, or our priorities.

When we think we are running behind or that there is always more to do, we tend to compensate by adding more to our list or expecting ourselves to multi-task more. But the truth is keeping a forty-hour workweek along with running the household are too much to handle. Anyone who works full time and does his/her/their household management is already fighting an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean that we aren’t able to focus, break down our tasks, dedicate efficient time to them, and carry on. When we analyze our core values, we know what is most important to us, regardless of what someone else might say or how someone else might live. Instead of focusing on what more we can do, we can take refuge in what we have accomplished. 

2) You don’t ask for help or delegate tasks:

This is a tricky habit that can quickly become an unmanageable precedent. When we assume responsibility for every task, we begin to tell ourselves that we are the only ones who can do it. This can be especially difficult for people who have perfectionist tendencies or who “like things a certain way.” It can also be a matter of pride for some of us who gain satisfaction from our “productivity.” We begin to attach our self-worth to how many things we were able to do on our own. 

When we can set aside our need to control or our need to be viewed a certain way, we are able to begin the process of sorting through what actually needs our attention and what is less important or has more flexibility. We may also feel, at times, that we shouldn’t have to ask for help; a great example of this is in regards to household chores in a home shared by more than one adult. Rather than martyr ourselves, we might be better served by stating that we feel unfairly burdened by the entirety of household chores falling to us or specific tasks always being our job. If we share a space and belongings with someone who isn’t helping to keep that space livable, that is another conversation.

3) You think the busier you are, the better you are doing in life:

This is an easy trap to fall into, especially with people documenting their lives and accomplishments on social media and all the messaging we receive about “laziness” and “productivity.” We here in the United States work more hours per week, take fewer breaks, and less vacation than our European counterparts; it is practically ingrained in us that we must always be “on the grind.” We view our work ethic as a badge of honor and our accumulated hours as evidence of our worth.

Unfortunately, there is a false sense of self-worth where we measure our worthiness based on our productivity. 

We need time to rest and space to reflect. We need a lunch break not at our desks, time in the evening for a bath or a meditation podcast, and space between activities to mentally decompress from what we have just done and gear up for what we are about to do. Being overscheduled, overworked, and spread thin in no way indicates our value or potential. It just frazzles us!

4) You compare yourself to others, especially your low point to someone else’s high point: 

Comparison, the thief of joy, is closely related to the notion that the busier we are, the better we are doing in life. This subconscious thought begins to percolate when we see others’ accomplishments and correlate them with the social media posts we see of them running from activity to activity, or squeezing in a run, or offering pointers of how to get more done in less time. On a day when we might have had a terrible sleep, are perhaps dealing with a recent traumatic event or circumstance, had a setback at work, and forgot to wash our kid’s shirt for Purple Shirt Day, we might feel that if only we were able to multitask better, we wouldn’t be so down. 

It is tempting to view our struggles as failure to power through, rather than understanding that the Insta story we saw from our busy friend four days ago doesn’t reflect her everyday schedule, or that maybe we are single-parenting while our friend has a partner to trade off chores and errands with. The solution can appear to be to pressure ourselves to accomplish too many things in too short a window, which inevitably leads to us feeling even worse about ourselves.

Let’s talk about one more thing that feeds into the pressure to multitask: The Fear!

I always say how you think affects the way you feel and act; behind actions lie emotions. When someone has adopted multitasking, there often lies a list of fears that drives the urge to multitask. To let go of multitasking, you need to understand the fears behind it. Those fears can be fear of missing out, fear of failure, fear of making mistakes, fear of disappointing others or letting them down, fear of not being enough. You have to ask yourself which one of these fears plays a role in your high expectations to multitask constantly. How might those fears be quieted if you were to give yourself permission to take your foot off the gas a little?

Enter: single-tasking. Single-tasking is, very simply, focusing on one task at a time. 

Single-tasking can be difficult to implement when you are used to juggling tasks and activities but it has several benefits, including stress reduction and time management. Believe it or not, studies have found that focusing on one task until it is complete before moving on to the next is more time-efficient! This is because the brain takes time to adjust focus after a shift in activity; every time we go back and forth and make a switch, we add time to our task(s). Single-tasking should be employed any time the activity in question requires mental attention. For example, riding an exercise bike while listening to a podcast isn’t a terrible use of multitasking, but writing a report while listening to a podcast is.

So if we’re going to break down our tasks into separate events, how can we be sure everything will get done? The truth is that some things might not get done right away; it might take time to practice systematically reviewing a list and working our way through it. But overall, the seconds saved by not switching between tasks will add up!

In Woodland Hills anxiety treatment, we can help you manage the challenges of multitasking!

4 steps to practicing single-tasking!

1) Focus on what matters:

Stay in the present moment and give your attention to the task at hand. Ask yourself, “What did I come here to do?” Ask yourself, “What was I doing before I started to think about the past or future?” We often feel overwhelmed by all the things we need to do to please others or meet other people’s expectations of ourselves and forget to focus on what matters to us. 

A great tool to help you decide what matters is one I read about in Rachel Hollis’ book “Girl, Stop Apologizing.” In her book, she talks about the difference between a to-do list vs. a result list. We all have to-do lists, but often the items we add to our list are more about keeping ourselves busy than moving us towards our goal. Instead, she suggests creating a “result-list” where you are mindful of things you need to do that will give you the results you want, whether the goal is to be the best mom you can be or write a book.

2) Instead of multitasking, find balance:

Look for a balance between work and personal time, utilizing your priorities and values. You can use a calendar or some sort of a scheduling system that keeps you on track. Take a look at what you’ve been doing and when, and reflect on it. Do you have that one friend who you always ask to come along on errands with you because you “don’t have time” to see him/her/them? What would happen if you were able to make an hour of space to go for coffee and sit down and talk with no distractions? The quality of your interaction for that hour would probably be worth five distracted hours of shopping. 

When we focus our energy on the task at hand, we can honor and finish that task and then move on to the next one. If you need mental breaks, set a timer for twenty minutes and commits to working for those twenty minutes. Then give yourself five minutes to get up and walk around, get a drink of water, go to the bathroom, whatever you might need. But when that five minutes is up, and you reset the timer, commit to focusing on your task. Remind yourself that you are working this way to create more time and space for leisure, relaxation, socialization, chores, etc. The more well-rounded your calendar is, the easier it is to put effort into each aspect of your life.

3) Learn to say no, to yourself and others:

When juggling, it can feel normal to add one more thing into the rotation, even if we’re already stressed out about our current commitments. When we practice setting boundaries, we learn our actual limits; our time limits, our emotional labor limits, our financial limits, etc. Relieving ourselves of pleasing others or bullying ourselves creates a level of stability and a sense of calm and focus that allows us to analyze and prioritize. This doesn’t mean that you can’t add things to your to-do list; it just means that you maintain your order of priorities on said list. Single-tasking eliminates the mentality that everything can and “should” be happening at once; declining a task, a chore, an activity, or an ongoing commitment reinforces and supports the practice of single-tasking.

4) Reframe your thinking:

Remember that your value doesn’t depend on how fast you get things done and how many things you are juggling at one time. The “superhero” narrative of people who are over-scheduled, overworked, running on fumes, and have a million things to remember is not only false but harmful. It is perfectly normal to be a busy person, especially if you have lots of things you value, from friends and family to hobbies, to the community, to your profession. 

But everything you are trying to do should fit comfortably in your waking hours to give you time to rest. 

If you tell yourself that every single piece of your life is of equal value, you may need to reframe what you think matters and soul-search to prioritize. Your value lies in giving your all to the task at hand and being wholeheartedly present. That’s where you shine.

It can be a complicated process to undo the messaging we get about having to “earn” our place in this world through productivity. The key to beginning to let go of that thinking is to sit with yourself and love yourself for who you are, not what you can “do.” When you feel the pressure to overwhelm your schedule begin to creep in, practice saying one of my favorite mantras from Brené Brown: 

“No matter what gets done and what is left undone, I’m enough.”

Embracing You Therapy Group Practice

Here at Embracing You Therapy Group, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, EMBRACING imperfections to create a gentler place for CALM in your life.

At our mental health practice in Woodland Hills, CA, we offer individual therapy and couple’s therapy. Both Dr. Menije and Cindy Sayani, AMFT offer virtual therapy to treat mental health concerns include Anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, phobias, and stress; Mood disorders including depression; Relationship issues, both in couples therapy and with individual clients; Perinatal mental health issues such as postpartum depression or anxiety. 

If you are ready to learn more about ways perfectionism is showing up in your life, Dr. Menije has a self-study digital course on Breaking-up With Perfectionism

Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress, and then let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today.

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