Make Time For Time: 3. Single-tasker or task-juggler?

This is the third part of my “Make Time For Time” series.

Multitasking is a curious beast.  Just because you’re texting someone while listening to music while the TV is on while you’re chatting to a mate on Facebook while checking the football news, doesn’t mean you’re actually multitasking.

Doing several things at the same time like this is called task-switching.  You aren’t actually doing several things at once, but you have chosen to dilute your focus and switch between several tasks.

photo by visualpanic

photo by visualpanic

Yes, you can stick on the radio and do the washing up at the same time.  Yes, you can chat to someone on your mobile and walk to campus at the same time.  But your focus is still being diluted.  As soon as you put more complex tasks into the mix, your focus dilutes even further.  Why do you think it’s so dangerous to text and drive?  You can’t process the information properly at the same time.  You’re switching from one thing to another which, in the example of texting and driving, is downright dangerous.

So let’s go back to the less life-threatening example of multitasking in the comfort of your room.  If one of the tasks is to write your essay and another involves the Internet, you may not be concentrating enough on the essay to bring out your best work.

Fear not! You don’t need to stop living life until you finish your coursework.  Instead, you can put a working structure to your task-switching.

Concentrated bursts of time directly focused on a single task may be all you need to work more productively.  Just 20 or 30 minutes (or more if you can bare it…) focused solely on a particular task gives you time to knuckle down and remove other distractions from your mind.  Instead of mistakenly thinking you’re doing several things at once, you’re carefully managing your time in small bites.

photo by theilr

photo by theilr

To do this most effectively, find an area without distraction so you definitely keep other tasks out of the way.  That includes switching off devices and programs that you’re not using for the task.

You may argue that you work best when other stuff is going on around you.  Perhaps you’ve tried to focus on separate issues in the past, with no success.

Well, if you must keep working as a hardcore task-switcher, by all means go for it.  If it seems to be a strength of yours, I’ll suggest this one thing…Do give yourself plenty time before the deadline, in case you encounter unexpected problems along the way.  Don’t panic because time’s run out; give yourself time to later on the more difficult elements of your work.  No plan is foolproof, so always give yourself a way out of danger, even if you do prefer task-switching.

Task switching is sometimes necessary, however you work.  In a situation where you can’t get any further with a particular task without waiting, feel free to move on to another task while you wait.  This type of switching is an exercise in prioritising and managing your time effectively.  Working through different tasks this way may involve what looks like juggling, but it’s more akin to plate spinning.  You still need to work carefully to make sure everything is under control, but you handle the tasks independently, rather than in a single movement.

Anyway, enough of juggling and spinning plates.  The main point to take home is not to dilute your time by working on too many things at once.  A linear approach to tasks may sound weak, but it’s a stronger method than you think.

Which are you…a single-tasker or a task-juggler?  What’s the greatest number of different things you’ve juggled at the same time?

In the next part of this series, I look at the effect technology has on our time.


  1. Great post. I’m happy to realize what the method to the madness is that I’ve been dealing with this quarter. It’s been very difficult for me to stay on one task for more than an hour (which if you think about it in the grand scheme of course load, isn’t much). But I’ve been trying to ‘task-juggle’ which is a trait that doesn’t come naturally to me. To be a single-tasker is going to take, for me, complete seclusion, i.e. the library. My roommates and I get along too well for me to get very much done.

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