How I Learned to Single Task

run
Image via Katie Hurley

I love running, but probably not for the reasons you might think. Yes, I love feeling strong and healthy and I believe it’s important to show self-care to my children. Yes, a good run sets the stage for a good day. But the biggest draw for me is that when I’m running, it’s only thing I’m doing. I’m alone with my thoughts and I can’t do anything other than that one thing. It’s a beautiful single task.

Multitasking is not my thing. In fact, I’m such a disaster when it comes to multitasking that I can actually feel my stress level increase when more requests come in than I can possibly handle at one particular time.

I try hard to avoid the stress of multitasking. In fact, sometimes I try so hard to avoid it that I actually forget to consider my to-do list at all. Ever. And yet, I find a way to do it. Sometimes it’s within the family. She needs this, he needs that, and he has a really important story to tell me. Sometimes it’s on the way out for the day. I scroll through the mental checklist while reminding the kids to check their backpacks while carrying a coffee, my shiny new iPhone, and some other extra thing that one of the teachers requested to the car. All at once. Because otherwise we might be late.

While I am a firm believer in teaching kids to slow down and avoid the stress of rushing, I don’t always heed my own warnings. And that’s when bad things usually happen. Not horribly unfixable life-changing bad things, but bad things that make life even more complicated. Just a few weeks ago on a beautiful October morning … smash went the shiny new iPhone. It hardly even hit the ground. I tried to catch it. But at the very moment that the phone slipped from my grasp, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the car door was in motion – swinging back toward my sweet boy’s tiny little hand – and I dropped everything to catch the door and prevent an injury. The real crisis was averted, but then I spent a good portion of my day at the Apple store paying out of pocket to replace the new screen.

What could I have done differently? I could have opened my car door, placed my phone and purse inside the car, and turned to open the passenger door when I had two free hands. Better yet, I could have left the phone behind.

People love to boast about multitasking, but the truth is that multitasking isn’t actually a thing. The human brain engages in task switching. You might think you’re doing two or three things at once, but really you’re switching back and forth, often very quickly. Hence the dropped phone when the danger center alerted me to the pending hand crush if the car door made contact.

Recent research shows that multitasking (or rapid fire task switching) is both damaging to the brain and leads to poor performance. In short, attempts to multitask are causing you stress, harming your brain, and making you appear incompetent. It’s time to hit the brakes on the superhuman thing and get back to single tasking.

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My daughter is a slow and methodical worker in the classroom. This frustrates her at times, as she sees many of her peers working quickly. Still, she remains focused on one thing at a time and works carefully and diligently. And she performs well because of it.

I’ve always given my kids extra time. I budget time in the morning, time in between activities, and time before bed. Time reduces stress and allows for trial and error. Time is a gift. And yet, I sometimes cheat myself when it comes to time.

Lately I’ve been following my daughter’s lead. One thing at a time, even if the to-do list is long and I can’t possibly get through it in one day. One article. One volunteer commitment. One book.

That smashed iPhone certainly wasn’t the end of the world, but it was a wake up call. I don’t need to carry the whole load at once – I just need to carry one thing at a time. While I don’t consider myself a high-stress person, I have noticed a difference in the past few weeks. Sure, a few emails have been overlooked and the dishes aren’t always done in a timely manner. But I no longer worry about checking things off the list. I do what I can and save the rest for another day.

I’m productive when I work – no distractions. I’m relaxed when I’m with my family – no interruptions. And as for that to-do list? I’ve crossed out some major things. No more PTA. No more added stress. No more worries.

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Single tasking makes for more productive and less stressful days, and that’s good for everyone involved. Go ahead and try it. You won’t regret it.

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How I Learned to Single Task

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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