Single-Tasking: Do Less, Get More Done

More often than not, it’s our desire to do too much that sets us up for failure. Making a single change like exercising more or eating less processed food can be challenging enough. But if a little is good, more must be better. Right? So, we decide to quit sugar. Workout five times a week. Load up on chicken and broccoli. And drink less coffee. Sound daunting to you? It is! A better approach is single-tasking.

What Is Single-Tasking?

Single-tasking is focussing on one task or goal at a time with as few distractions as possible. You work on the task or goal until it’s complete or you’ve dedicated a good chunk of time to it.

Single-tasking is often used as a productivity tool in our work and personal lives. But it can also help us achieve our fitness goals. For example:

Instead of focussing on losing weight—which many people associate with major life changes—focus on one simple habit (like eating slowly) that will help you lose weight. When we shift our focus from broad to narrow, we go from overwhelming to manageable.

The opposite approach—multitasking—doesn’t work. The research is almost unanimous on this, which is very rare in social science.

Multitasking Is a Myth

Most of us default to multitasking. We want to be efficient at work. We want to lose weight. Fix our back pain. Train for a race. And get more sleep. But multitasking actually wastes time, splits our concentration, and kills creativity.

Human brains are essentially single-core processors. We can’t actually check our emails whilst being engaged in a morning meeting. What we do is switch between the two tasks quickly. We feel like we’re getting lots done but research says otherwise. As Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT, explains:

People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves . . . You think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.

Think about writing an e-mail and talking on the phone . . . Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time. You cannot focus on one while doing the other. That’s because of what’s called interference between the two tasks. They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, and so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.

We can apply the same logic to our fitness goals. Trying to make major dietary changes whilst starting up a new exercise program regularly leads to failure. Why? We’re spreading ourselves too thin. We’re forcing our brain to juggle two or more large goals all day every day.

On the other hand, if we break down our goals into daily practices or habits and use a single-tasking approach, we increase our chances of success. Let’s look at why this approach works.

Benefits of Single-Tasking

Focussing on one goal at a time simplifies your life and helps you zoom in on big-ticket items. It gives you the mental energy to devote to a single important task instead of diluting your willpower and attention. Here are some of the benefits of single-tasking:

  • More efficient: it may seem like you’re getting more done when multitasking but you’re not. There’s a ‘switching cost’ associated with multitasking. This means that every time you go from one task to another, you become less efficient as you change gears. Researchers have found that it can cause a 40% drop in productivity.
  • Less stress: we live in a fast-paced world where information overload is the norm. This keeps us on ‘high alert’. Reducing inputs (like the number of times you check mind-numbingly stupid emails from middle-management wankers) reduces stress. It also allows you to step back and focus on one task or goal at a time. Which helps you stick with things long term.
  • More creative: when we multitask, we use up a lot of our working memory, which can take away from our ability to think creatively and problem solve.
  • Quality work: focussing on one goal or task at a time allows us to give it our full attention. You do it once and do it right.

How to Single-Task Your Fitness Goals

The first question you need to ask is ‘what is my number one goal?’ You might want to lose weight, get toned, and train for a marathon. But trying to tackle all three at once will slow you down. When we single-task our goals, we’re forced to focus on the most important one.

Say you picked weight loss as the top priority. Now you need to break that down into smaller daily habits you can practice. So you pick something easy to start with like eating slowly. That’s your sole focus for the next two weeks or until it becomes second nature. No worrying about exercise routines, cutting out all sugar, going vegan, or joining a monastery. Simple.

The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and starting on the first one.
— Mark Twain

When breaking your goal down into smaller tasks, ask yourself a few questions to make sure you’re focussing on the right things. Does the task support your number one goal? Is it simple and logical? You wouldn’t go from eating slowly to daily workouts if spandex was in the last time you visited a gym. Instead, you’d focus on making small nutritional changes, as that’s where 80% of your weight loss results will come from.

How does this play out in real-world examples? Let’s take a look.

Single-Tasking Health and Fitness

Here are some ideas to get you started on single-tasking your health and fitness goals.  

Changing Your Diet

Don’t try to go Paleo, vegan, etc., overnight. If your diet is all over the shop, make one simple change to start with. This could be eating 30 g of protein for breakfast, eating more vegetables, eating slowly, eating to 80% full, or just about anything else.

Mindful Eating

Don’t eat distracted. I’ve written about why mindful eating is important before. The bottom line is that if you eat distracted (e.g., watching Jon Snow swoon over the Dragon Queen) you’re more likely to overeat.

Focus on Workouts

When you’re at the gym, value that time by turning your phone on silent (better yet, leave it in your bag). Don’t mindlessly jog on the treadmill while watching the news or check Facebook between sets. Be 100% present and focussed on your fitness.

Structure Workouts Around a Main Goal

Do you want to run a marathon? Build speed for sports? Deadlift twice your weight? You likely have a goal you want to achieve, so build your workouts around it.

Spend 80% of your workout time on building a particular skill or working towards a goal. You’d be surprised how often people are Googling ‘how to get better at deadlifting’ and only deadlifting once every now and then. Your body adapts to the demands placed on it. If you want to lift heavy, most of your work should be, well, lifting heavy!

Build an Exercise Habit

If you’re not exercising at the moment, start by simply forming the habit. The exercise is not important at this point. What’s important is showing up to do something on a regular basis. It could be as simple as a 10-minute walk every Monday at 6 pm. The point is to build the habit. Worry about the exercise once you’re moving regularly.

Small Steps

If you need to cut back on soft drinks but are drinking five cans a day, start by reducing your intake by one can a day. Build up to cutting it out completely, but don’t go cold turkey off the bat.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) pick one goal and break it down. Then focus on single-tasking the shit out of it. Start out with an easy change. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

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