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Learn & Practice

Give Up Multitasking for Uni-Tasking

By Stephanie Wagner, NBC-HWC

This week’s Workplace Wednesday piece from Stephanie Wagner, NBC-HWC, challenges you to move past the myth of multitasking.

Let me ask you a question

  • How many times a day do you toggle between your email and an important project? 
  • Or check your email while you’re in the midst of an important meeting? 
  • How many tabs do you have open in your web browser right now?
  • How much juggling of multiple tasks is being done with intention vs. habit and impulse?

The Myth of Multitasking

My guess is, like many, you attempt to juggle multiple tasks because you’re trying to to complete all the things on your “to do” list more quickly. Believe it or not, multitasking is a myth. It’s not possible. Instead, our brain is switching quickly between tasks. Not only is this process mentally exhausting and compromises our concentration, but it happens out of habit and impulse. In those moments we’re not controlling what we’re paying attention to and we’re not in the driver’s seat of our own mind.

The truth is that the average adult is distracted 47% of their waking life.

This statistic is shared often and on some level it validates our lived experience. Many of us feel distracted–our minds are all over the place. We desperately want to focus, but feel unable to do so. The pull of our endless to-do list and the lure of checking the news or social media all gets in the way of us being focused on the task at hand. Consider the impact on our productivity and our creativity!

Put Yourself in the Driver’s Seat of Your Mind

The capacity to stay in the driver’s seat of our mind is what scientists refer to as “cognitive control” [Daniel Goleman interview, the Healthy Minds Program App]. This simply means that we have the capacity to focus on one thing and to resist distractions. You can think of this as impulse control. 

Imagine what it would be like to be in that important meeting or in the middle of that important project and to recognize the pull of wanting to check your email…or your phone…or the news. But, instead of succumbing to the impulse, you are in control of your mind. You recognize the distraction and you are able to stay focused anyway.

Strengthening Mental Muscles

Three of the skills that help us uni-task are directing attention on purpose, sustaining attention, and noticing the pull of distraction. We can strengthen these capacities through training our mind in certain types of meditation practice, similar to the way that we build stronger muscles by lifting weights at the gym.

  1. Directing attention on purpose means that we are choosing, with intention, what we are paying attention to in the moment.
  2. Sustaining attention is the capacity to keep our attention focused over time.
  3. Noticing the pull of distraction is the ability to notice when our attention is getting pulled off track.
Train Your Mind to Uni-task

One of the ways that we can begin to train these skills is through the practice of counting the breath

Try these three steps to practice the skill:

  • Direct attention to your breath. 
  • Sustain attention through counting your breath. Count each cycle of breathing in your mind, from 1 to 3.  As you breathe in, think to yourself “one, one, one,” and again, “one, one, one,” as you breathe out. Then count “two, two, two,” on your second breath, and so on…
  • Notice distraction: Every time you notice that the mind has wandered off, bring awareness back to the breath and start counting again at one. 
Tips to Uni-Task @Work

Beyond training your mind in a more formal way, there are things that can support uni-tasking at work. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Silence notifications on your computer and cell phone
  • Put your cell phone in another room
  • Close the multiple tabs in your browser prior to working on a project or entering a meeting
  • Work in sprints – Dedicate 25 minutes or so to working on a project, followed by a 5-minute break. Resist distractions while working on the project and save the internet browsing or other distraction for your break.

Learn more about how the Healthy Minds Framework can support your workplace well-being with Healthy Minds @Work or signing up for our Healthy Minds @Work Public MasterClass.

HM@Work Meditations Workplace Wednesdays