Is It Better To Single-Task or Multi-Task?

photo credit: Dakimapics

There are no shortage of ‘experts’ that claim to know the secret of maximum productivity. At first someone will swear that the only way to really get things done is to multi-task: more done, less time. Then immediately someone will counter that it’s far simpler, more effective and rewarding and ultimately more ‘zen’ to do one task at a time: single-tasking.

It’s time to stop the confusion. Is one method really better than the other or does it just depend on the individual using either method?

Let’s clear things up, shall we:

Single-tasking: Do one thing at a time to be more effective

Ah, the age-old art of doing less to achieve more. This has been beaten to death for centuries. When you focus all of your efforts on just one thing, it’s assumed you will complete it to the best of your ability. While this is mostly the case, single-tasking is significantly more time consuming. If you want to create a masterpiece it will take time. So much time, in fact, that you might lose track of your other assignments.

There are even times when you’ll be trying to complete a task, and still be unable to tackle it. This, of course, leaves the task uncompleted and you having accomplished less than expected.

Despite getting only one thing done at a time as opposed to many things, the return on that one thing will no doubt be tremendous. All the work you put into the task will be reflected in how effectively you completed it. There will also be a greater sense of reward having completed something start to finish and these small victories, on a daily basis, can ultimately have a very positive mental effect.

Multi-tasking: Do more in less time.

That’s the basic idea of muti-tasking. Though personal development sites collectively hail that single-tasking is more effective (heck, even I support it), multi-tasking is still effective in getting things done. To be fair, multi-tasking has benefits that doing one thing at a time doesn’t.

As I’ve stated above, you get more done. A perfectly legitimate example is that you’re working on a project for your business and you also have a baby to take care of.  Will you just drop caring for the baby while you finish that big project? Or will you nuture your little bundle of joy at the risk of losing your job? Better yet, would you fare better to manage both simultaneously? I don’t know about you, but the last choice looks the best to me.

Though multi-tasking does have its benefits, there are times when it can get a bit overwhelming. Taking on a lot of difficult projects at once is definitely not a good idea. By doing this, you spread yourself too thin and the law of diminishing returns begins to kick in.

Which Method is Better?

Both methods clearly have their respective pitfalls, but which method comes out on top? Single-tasking allows you to zero in on a task and get it done sufficiently, but multi-tasking gives you a wider range in which to get your tasks done at the expense of depth of understanding.

The answer then, lies not in the general, but the specific – as with most things in life. Different tasks, assigned by different people with different expectations, must be looked at on a case-by- case basis. There is no blanket answer as no two situations nor two people are alike.

Why Not Do Both?

Is there are rule that explicitly states that, “Thou shalt not single-task and multi-task at the same time?” Neither method is better than the other because they are both useful in getting things done. You don’t have to multi-task two big things in order to get them done quicker, because it’s possible that you’ll fail at completing both of them. Spending your valuable time single-tasking small problems can lead to overestimating them.

The solution is to multi-task the small things and single-task the big things. However, what if there are two large tasks to do? Should you still multi-task? The short answer is yes. Break up both tasks into smaller tasks and do them simultaneously. The long answer is that it depends on the task and which one you think requires more attention than the other. Some things aren’t easy to chop into chunks and can only be single-tasked, whereas some things can only be multi-tasked.

Multi-task or Single-task? The choice is yours

Not everyone can multi-task. It’s not a matter of brain capacity or time management skills. Some of us just feel that it’s more convenient to do a single task until it’s done. In addition, not everyone is comfortable with single-tasking. Some people just have to do something else in order to periodically take their mind off of the task at hand; they can’t sit still and focus on one thing at time.

But it doesn’t matter what I say. Nor does it matter what any other personal development blogger might tell you. No one way is “the” way to go. Both methods are very person specific, knowing what type of person you are will dictate your choices. The important point is to honestly evaluate your strengths, weaknesses and work habits, and approach each task conscious of these traits. Then experiment with different combinations to suit your needs.

Which do YOU think is better? Share your thoughts in the comments section.

John Anyasor is a guest blogger for PickTheBrain who writes for the HiLife2B: Blog on Personal Improvement for a Good Life. He gives advice on personal development, life lessons, college life tips, and more.

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Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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