Only Do One Thing At a Time

The proliferation of tools, apps, and modern business practices has increased the number of distractions with the power to interrupt your work to a number just shy of infinite. When email was new and novel, a chime to notify you of a new message in your inbox was helpful. The inbox, the phone, and an open door were the only ways you might be distracted from your work. The new currency of excellence is focus, something that requires giving yourself over to what’s most important and avoiding distractions. If you want to do excellent—and meaningful—work, focus on one thing at a time.

On a Need to Know Basis

  • Email: Your email program notifies you that you just received a message, something that might have been useful at a time before email became the primary form of communication. If you have your email notifications on now, the frequency of interruption matches the second hand on a clock, making the notification of an email something close to useless. Most people leave their inbox open, responding to email in real-time, opening themselves up to innumerable distractions, most of which are not worth the cost of shifting your focus.
  • Chat: Your messaging service or chat program notifies you that some conversation you are part of has new messages. Because other people can tag you in those messages, you are interrupted when they seek your attention. The intention behind these programs is that you could catch up when it makes sense. But the tools initially designed to replace email communication more often resemble the telephone’s synchronous communication.
  • Smartphone: The smartphone and its many applications provide an endless parade of notifications and distractions. Every application, from the task manager that is supposed to help you be more productive, to the social apps that are supposed to keep you connected to people, all come with notifications, each promising to keep you updated, and in doing so, robbing you of your focus. Add texting to this device, and you have the ultimate weapon of mass distraction.
  • Open Workspace: If you are unfortunate enough to work in an open office space, you are plagued by the option for anyone to interrupt you at any time and for any reason. It’s also likely that you can’t get through dinner without picking up your phone every five minutes. Not that anyone notices while they engage with their smartphone.

While all of these tools may be useful in some cases, do you need to know the information they provide now? Is each communication so valuable that you must stop what you are doing to review it, decide what it means, and respond to it? The answer is a resounding, “no!” Almost nothing requires your immediate attention.

More Than One Thing at a Time

Computers are designed for multitasking. In some ways, humans are also capable of doing more than one thing at a time. But humans are not capable of doing two things that require their attention at the same time. You can drive to work without having to concentrate on the route and listen to the radio, that pattern having been burned in over time. You can wash the dishes and talk to someone at the same time without any trouble. But some tasks require your full focus and attention.

You cannot read an email and write a report at the same time. Nor can you have a meaningful conversation with someone you care about while answering your email and checking every text message as it arrives. When you are doing more than one thing at a time, you are not multitasking. Instead, you are shifting your attention between the different tasks.

There is no single outcome you might generate that is improved by shifting your attention to every potential distraction. The opposite, however, is true; you significantly improve your results when you give yourself over to some piece of work.

Giving Yourself Over to Your Work

I am using the word “work” broadly here. Work means some outcome you need to create, be it a work project or task or date night. Because it is possible for your body to be in one place and your mind somewhere else, giving yourself over to your work requires that you bring them together in the same space

The way to give yourself over to work is to focus on one task at a time for, say, ninety minutes. To do so, you have to refuse to allow anything else to capture any small part of your attention.

If everything is important enough to deserve your attention, then nothing is important. When you assign the same value to an email or text message as the conversation you are having with someone on your team, you are surely undervaluing the more important of the two. When you stop working on your most important project or initiative because your phone notified you that someone commented on your social post, you are assigning too much value to something with no chance of creating the same long term value as your most important project.

Writing This Post

As I am writing this post, I have a single application open. I have no web browser on my screen. The notifications function on my laptop is completely disabled. It is very early in the morning, and there is little chance anyone will need—or want—my attention.

My smartphone is on the desk, but it is in Do Not Disturb mode, allowing no texts or calls except for the people in my favorites list, which includes my family members. All the notifications on all the applications on my iPhone are turned off, as I refuse notifications from all apps when I install them, with very few exceptions, my calendar being the primary app I allow to notify me. As I am writing this, my phone chimed to let me know I have a meeting in ten minutes. I can get so focused that I lose track of time, which makes that a notification worth allowing.

I have written close to a thousand words in about forty-five minutes, something that might have taken more than two hours had I not given it my full and undivided attention.

Excellence is in the Outcomes

In a world where almost everyone has forfeited the right to give themselves over to something long enough to do excellent work, doing so makes you a stand out. You cannot do anything with excellence when you allow your focus to be pulled this way and that by the trivial.

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