OK, get ready for the single most life-changing productivity rule I’ve ever used (and believe me, I’ve tried a lot). Ready?
Do one task, to completion, before moving on to the next.
Skeptical? Dubious? Unconvinced? I know I was. That’s too simplistic, I thought, when I first came across this particular piece of advice over 10 years ago while reading my beloved Ben Franklin’s Almanac of Wit, Wisdom, and Practical Advice (fact: The trusty tome has been with me for over 14 years and seven cross-country moves).
Here’s the exact page I found the advice:
I resisted this guidance for years because it just didn’t seem practical to me. At the time, I was managing almost 30 people and responsible for a staggering amount of daily, weekly, and monthly reports, PowerPoint presentations, and written evaluations. The only method I used to manage the heavy workload was to do all my tasks at the same time—thus becoming a multitasking busy bee.
In reality, though, I was like a firefighter fighting trick birthday candles. I thought in order to be efficient, and to seem competent, I had to constantly be on top of everything, which translated to me panicking if I didn’t respond instantly to an email from my supervisor. By the end of the week, I was exhausted, burnt out, and absolutely dreading Monday morning.
One of the biggest downsides of multitasking (besides driving yourself crazy) is the cognitive load required to switch tasks so rapidly. As an article from the American Psychological Association states, “multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error… even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.”
When I stumbled across the advice again, this time in a different form (James Clear’s article about the Ivy Lee Method, which is another take on the Charles Schwab story), I was in a more receptive state.
By this point, I was pretty much convinced that I needed to make a change in how I approached my work.
And at first, I couldn’t believe how efficient the new process made me. I was actually able to get more done without feeling brain dead by 6 PM.
It’s still a work in progress for me, and I do often find myself getting distracted and reaching for my phone or checking my email. But when I can shut down those urges to switch gears before I’ve finished something, that’s when I really get in the zone—working efficiently and producing high-quality work, much faster than if I relied on multitasking.
Give it a try. Look at your to-do list and knock out just one item, from start to finish, without distracting yourself with other obligations. Yes, it’ll be hard the first time, but I promise that the more you use this method, the easier it’ll be.
Sound too easy? Did you try it? Let me know on Twitter.
Photo of woman looking ready for anything courtesy of PeopleImages/Getty Images.