Work Slowly and Do One Thing at a Time to Be More Productive

Does this sound like you?

I’m writing, and making progress! Wow, that’s a great way to phrase that, people are going to like this. Ping! A text? Better check it, might be something impor… oh, a funny picture. Write back “ha ha”. Pick an emoji… Yeah, that one. Ok, sounds like something I would say. Send. So, where was I? Right, starting the third paragraph, uhh… What’s was I going to say again? Ctrl+Tab to the outline… Right, got it. How do I transition between these points, hmm… I haven’t checked Twitter in a while. Ok, what’s new, Twitter? So and so has a new dog. Ok, cute. Flamewars, boring. Interesting article, read that later. Anyway, back to writing. So what did I have to do again? Right, third paragraph. What was I going to say here? Ugh, why am I so scatter-brained today? Wait, did that person answer my email?

This is your brain on multitasking.

Contrary to what you might think, multitasking doesn’t help you get more work done. In fact, the opposite has been shown by several studies. Multitasking lowers one’s IQ to the range of an 8 year-old child, reduces overall concentration, organization, and attention to detail. And that’s not to mention the possibility of brain damage.

“But I’ve got so much stuff do to! How do I get through all of it?”

By not trying to do it all at once.

The Benefit of One Thing at a Time

If you ever find yourself wishing you had more time during the day to get stuff done, you might need to review what your typical day is like. If you’re constantly switching between tasks, putting out a fire (and likely starting another elsewhere), answering an email, not forgetting to check your social networks in between those, check the time, and recoil in horror — it’s already noon? But I haven’t even done any work yet! It’s time to step back.

Staying busy is not the same as working hard, and far from the same thing as being productive.

To get more things done, you need to figure out a structure for your work, stop multitasking, and do one thing at a time.

If you only focus on one task, you’ll be able to put in all your concentration and energy into that one task, and not give it whatever is left over after you check your messages for the umpteenth time. If your work is important to you, it deserves your complete focus.

“I don’t need to abstain from social networks! It only takes a second, and doesn’t take away from my concentration!”

Not unless you’re superhuman.

Consider the Switching Cost

Does this sound familiar? You’re reading an article while listening to music, everything is going well, until you feel the need to lower the volume in the other tab. You go to the other tab, change the volume, go back, and suddenly you forget where you left off. You find the spot where you stopped reading, but now you’ve forgotten what was in the paragraph that lead up to it.

The same thing happens when you go from one task to another: you’ve turned part of your attention away from what you were doing to tend to something else, and now you’ve lost your focus, and have to do additional mental labor and expend some of your finite energy reserves to get back to the headspace you were in before.

This is why creating a distraction-free environment is so important to your overall productivity.

The remedy is to determine a single thing you’re going to focus on — your priority.

Determine Your Priority

The priority is what goes above all else. It is that one most important thing that you need to accomplish above all else that day.

You can’t have multiple priorities — focusing on everything is the same thing as focusing on nothing.

This is a tough decision: focusing on completing just one thing might mean giving up another thing entirely. Unfortunately, sometimes, that might be a necessary tradeoff to make, even if it looks like the bad choice. Would you rather half-ass two things, or whole-ass one? The decision is entirely up to you.

However, you might not need to sacrifice all your work to finish one task, after all. You’d be surprised how much focus can up your productivity, and you might end up needing way less time that you thought you would originally.

Work Slowly

If you’re a compulsive multitasker, you might feel like you spend the whole day putting out fires. You’re in a rush to do all the stuff you need doing, and, as a result, you end up rushing through most of your work, never giving anything the attention it deserves, but at least you get through all of it relatively unscathed.

If you’re going to follow the advice in this article, and do one thing at a time, you might also want to take this time to work slowly, at least at first.

Now, working slowly doesn’t seem like the most productive thing you can spend your energy on, but since this advice is for compulsive multitaskers, tab-switchers and shiny-thing-over-there-ers, you might lack the patience to do your work methodically.

If you take the time to consciously slow down your work, you will instantly become more attentive to the mistakes you make, and have fewer things to correct later on. Settle into the feeling of not having to rush with everything you have to do, and you’ll notice your stress decreasing, too.

For the same reasons why you shouldn’t text while you drive, take the time to erase all distractions while you focus one the single task at hand. Lack of concentration is not a character flaw, it’s an underdeveloped muscle. And like with your bicep, you need the equivalent of diet and exercise — priority structuring and eliminating distractions — to get it buff.


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Laconic Lemming
Content crafter at Write!, spends all his time writing or learning how to write better. A few time was caught reading The New York Times and watching TED talks during working hours.
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  • “You can’t have multiple priorities — focusing on everything is the same thing as focusing on nothing.” – brilliant words!

  • With scrum methodology in mind

    • Indeed, there is something from Scrum 😉

  • Thank you for this article! I am ready to read more 🙂

    • Welcome! here are more articles ready for your kind attention.

  • I’m a compulsive tab-switcher. Ugh, how do I stop?

    • Don’t stop. Be yourself 🙂

  • Solid advice. I really do notice I’m more methodical when I do things slowly.

  • Do one task at a time – right approach.

    • Can’t agree more.