Real Simple: How to single task your way to success and sanity

Despite the fact that today we pride ourselves on being a culture of multi-taskers, I myself am anything but. For me, multitasking is the art of messing up several things at once. But we all know – and perhaps secretly despise – the woman who can seemingly do it all. And seamlessly, at that! Yes, she’s the one who gets up at 5 a.m., sprints to the gym, then showers, answers all her e-mails, fixes her family a breakfast of steel cut oatmeal with flaxseeds and warm organic maple syrup and is ready to go to the office as soon as she drives her two equally perfect children to school. Her male counterpart is just as Type A and accomplished. Not only does he hold down a high-powered day job, but he is a nationally ranked squash player and on weekends writes poetry when not competing in an Ironman Triathlon. In a pinch, he can re-shingle his roof.

One morning, many moons ago, I decided that I, too, could do it all. On that particular day, I also made my family oatmeal for breakfast and carefully chose my husband’s suit and tie. And as soon as I rushed my older sons off to the bus and took my little girl to nursery school, I hopped in the car and gave him door-to-door service to his office.

An hour later, all missions accomplished, I returned to my office and started to write my column with still plenty of time left to meet my deadline. I sat back in the chair and let out a large self-satisfied sigh, thinking to myself, Who said you can’t do it all? Just then the phone rang.

“Mrs. Michael,” stated the voice on the other end, “this is Mrs. Butters at the nursery school.”

“Oh, hello, Mrs. Butters,” I chirped.“Everything okay?”

“Well, yes, everything is fine! The reason I’m calling is that you seemed to have sent Lisi to school in her pajamas.”

So much for multitasking!

Over the years, however, I have come to believe that I am not alone. That those who attempt to accomplish more by doing several things at the same time, often find themselves accomplishing nothing at all!

But until now, I never really had a scientific explanation for it. Or any explanation, for that matter. Therefore, I was delighted to speak with Devora Zack, CEO of Only Connect Consulting, Inc., the author of three books, including her latest, Singletasking: Get More Done—One Thing at a Time.

Thankfully, she doesn’t believe in multitasking, either. “Here’s the problem,” she insists. “Multitasking fails you. Why? Because it doesn’t work!”

Zack goes on to say that in reality, multitasking decreases your productivity. And by no small measure —- as much as 40 percent. “Acclaimed researchers and neuroscientists, including those at Harvard, Stanford, and the University of London, agree that multitasking is trouble. In addition to lessening your productivity, it also lowers your IQ and shrinks your brain.”

Not to mention the personal, economic, and social toll of distracted driving. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 report they had read or sent text or email messages while driving within the last 30 days. And a whopping 69 percent report they had talked on their cellphone.

So what’s our stressed-out society to do? One word, according to Zack: Singletasking.

“By singletasking you’ll be more productive and present. Plus, like many other skills, singletasking is one you can easily learn or relearn. With simple instruction and steady practice, you can single-task your way to success and sanity.”

Here are the seven ways Devora Zack recommends to get started reclaiming your life, regaining control, and remembering what really matters:

1. Realize that multitasking is a myth.

Your brain is incapable of simultaneously processing separate streams of information from multiple tasks. That’s because there’s “interference” between the two tasks. So, in actuality, multitasking doesn’t exist. What you’re really doing is task-switching—the technical term for moving rapidly and ineffectively between tasks.

2. Commit to your choices.

Singletasking obliges you to do one thing at a time—excluding any other demands at that moment. This means you must stand firm and genuinely commit to your choices. You can manage your next task after working on the existing one. You don’t have to complete every task all at once, just the current period of time dedicated to it.

3. Discipline your brain.

How often do you meet someone and instantly forget his or her name? This indicates that your mind was distracted—preoccupied with something else entirely. The inability to concentrate on a name or conversation is evidence of what I deem SBS—Scattered Brain Syndrome. Single-tasking isn’t only about getting things done. It’s also about developing focus. Living in the present will affect the very essence of your life, including work, relationships, and everything else that matters to you.

4. Park extraneous thoughts.

Single-tasking doesn’t require you to discard distracting thoughts. Instead, it provides simple systems to set them aside until you can redirect your mind. One technique is to “park” other ideas in a designated place, such as a notes page on your smartphone, and then quickly return to the current endeavor.

5. Build fences.

At work, it’s up to you to control your environment—to “build fences” to keep potential distractions, such as noise and pop-ups, at bay. Rather than blame technology or colleagues, take control of your workspace and gadgets. For example, before a conference call, close your door or put a “Quiet” Post-it note outside your cubicle. Mute all chimes, ringers, and pings, and turn off visual alerts and social media messaging.

6. Practice cluster-tasking.

Does reading and replying to texts, emails, and social media messages lure you away from bigger, more important projects? Then try cluster-tasking—a technique whereby you bunch related tasks into specific segments during the day. At the office, for instance, you could cluster your emailing to three segments daily—into arrival, lunch, and departure times.

7. Grow your attention span.

The average human attention span is eight seconds—one second less than the attention span of a goldfish—reports the National Center for Biotechnology Information. In a noisy world with 24/7 news, you’re bombarded by distractions as, tragically, your brain becomes trained to avoid quiet reflection. So next time you’re “busy” surfing the Web, ask yourself if you’re really just sidestepping solitude and introspection. Carve out a little time each day to be left alone with your thoughts.

As Henry David Thoreau exhorted in “Walden,” his classic account of his two years at the pond —- “Simplify. Simplify!” And I’m sure he didn’t even have to send his daughter to school in her pajamas to reach that conclusion!