I tried unitasking for a week to see if it made me more productive

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Can unitasking put an end to my multitasking ways?

When Aristotle was crafting his 12 ancient virtues, he missed one: that of unitasking. The Unitasker, the ethics books would read, is efficient, focused and undeterrable. In the age of optimisation, isn’t this who many of us strive to be?

Alas, instead of pursuing tasks with single-minded fervour, the con of the decade is multitasking. We buy into the lie that doing all the things at exactly the same time is the key to productivity and success. Watching TV is primetime for email checking and showering is best suited for catching up on podcasts.

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As someone who works in the fast-paced, ever-changing environment of fashion PR, my weekdays are fraught with chopping and changing. I’m firing off emails, reacting to the latest urgent matter, then quickly darting to the next thing.

Not only has it been proven that multitasking increases inefficiencies – switching from task to task, faffing about and never really completing anything – but it comes with another level of stress. I never switch off.

This striving for peak activity ends up leaving me with heightened feelings of anxiety and exhaustion. So, in the name of self-love, self-care, or whatever you deem it these days, I set myself the challenge to unitask for a week.

I set some basic ground rules – if I’m honest, the very idea of doing one thing at a time sends my Gen Y head swirling. What happens when I’m not working at this reactive, hyper-alert level? How could I possibly get everything done?

Listening to music is always excusable, as it serves as useful background fodder, while the constant chatter of podcasts is only permitted when given the appropriate listening space (walking, cooking, etc.). Mindless scrolling and double-screening are mega no-nos, at work or at home.

Expert articles promised that I would “get more done in less time” if I halted the multitasking and regular switcheroo. According to these pieces, the key is to time slot tasks, be less reactive, set a timer, and clean your desk. After a week of hits, misses and life lessons, here’s what I found.

Emails can wait

Instead of checking my emails at every ping, I gave myself space. My mantra became “Finish this first; then it’s email time.” A 15-minute wait will rarely result in the whole world falling apart. With this act of patience, the necessary focus came more naturally.

I could concentrate and plug into a particular task – seeing it to completion, or at least reaching a significant checkpoint ahead of time – and, surprise, surprise, achieve more because of it.

A clean desk clears the mind

It sounds stupidly simple, but giving my desk a quick spruce and clean gave me the space to focus. I am notoriously clutter-heavy and have convinced myself that I thrive in its midst. However, a little dust first thing on Monday morning helped me enter the week with a new, grime-free mindset of efficiency and preparedness.

Learn to be a smart scheduler

My peak alertness time is between 10 am and 2 pm; I’m switched on, awake, keen to get things done. The unitasking way of thinking promotes ticking off challenging work at your most effective time. Instead of putting off the difficult tasks for the end of the day (and therefore, rescheduling them for the next), I made a point of getting these done first.

I set the hour timer, settled in, and ticked it off, saving the admin-based activities for my slower, late afternoon hours. Not only did I get more shit done, but it was the positive mood-booster I needed early in the day.

Distractions will always be there

There is no way of ridding your workspace of distractions. For me, it’s the conversations that come with an open-plan office space and a fun group of female coworkers, various appointments and pop-ins, and couriers. These are part and parcel with the job: unavoidable and necessary.

Instead of attempting to hold a conversation while finishing the email (inevitably leading to something illegible), I acknowledged the distraction. I paused for a moment, leaned into it, then re-engaged with the task at hand shortly after. Even distractions deserve some attention, but use that freedom wisely.

Unitasking equals lower anxiety levels

The problem with my multitasking is the constant heightened state of anxiety it encourages. I’m always ready to pounce on the next thing and respond to urgent demands – I would be horrified to know my resting heart rate at these times.

Conversely, focusing on one thing at a time – whether it be one form of entertainment or a single project or email response – releases me from this frantic state. I can breathe while I type. I can write the right words and avoid spewing garbage.

After my week of unitasking, I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, I can be a calm human – better yet, a calm and productive human (something I have always dreamed of being). If only Aristotle were still around today, I’m sure he would agree with me.

This article was originally published on January 14, 2021.

For more on the power of unitasking, try this.

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