Single-Tasking for Productivity and Stress Management

multi-tasking woman
Multi-tasking isn't as efficient as it looks. John Lamb/Getty Images

 I used to be a big fan of multi-tasking when it became a popular strategy for productivity. The idea of doubling productivity by doing multiple things at once is quite appealing for busy people, and these days most of us are busy people. However, several studies show that in most cases, multi-tasking can negatively affect productivity and efficiency. Here's how.

Multi-Tasking and Your Brain

Focusing on more than one task at a time, repeatedly switching back and forth between two or more tasks, or focusing on many things in a short period of time can all be considered 'multitasking' and they can all leave you less focused and efficient than you may think. This is because it takes time for your mind to adjust to a shift in focus; each time you switch your focus, you are creating another need for your mind to re-focus, and this can drain you of time and energy. It can also mean that when you multitask between more than one activity that requires thought of focus, it takes longer than it would have taken if you had focused on each task individually.

When Multi-Tasking Works

When you group a task that requires focus and concentration with one that is mainly physical and something that can be done on 'auto-pilot,' multi-tasking works well. This is because you can put most of your focus on one activity and let the other one get done secondarily; you don't need to keep shifting a high level of focus from one activity to the other. Here are some examples of paired activities that are more amenable to multi-tasking:

  • Listening to music or audiobooks while exercising
  • Having a casual conversation while doing housework

When It Doesn't Work

Multi-tasking can be a focus-killer and energy drain when you are attempting two tasks that require conscious thought. Here are some examples of activities that are best done separately:

  • Listening to music or audiobooks while writing
  • Having a casual conversation while doing homework (unless you are talking about the homework itself)

Alternatives to Multi-Tasking

If you find yourself multi-tasking much of the time, consider taking a break from it. You don't need to give up multi-tasking entirely, but here are some alternatives to try. See how you feel when you incorporate these when possible.


When you feel tempted to cram too many activities into the same space, give yourself permission to choose the most important thing for the moment and focus solely on it, if possible. (You may need to create a plan for when you can address the other activities that need doing before you can clear them from your mind, but this is part of the process. For more on this, see "chunking" below.) If there are simply too many things to do, you may need to pare down some of your responsibilities. (Don't worry, we'll get to that in a minute, too.)

Focusing on one task at a time, as mentioned, really can save you time, so it pays to get into the habit of focusing on one thing at a time as much as possible or as much as it makes sense to do so. 

Utilize "Chunking"

When you have many tasks to do throughout the day, 'chunking' is a useful time management strategy that saves you from multi-tasking. The concept behind chunking is to set aside chunks of time to focus on one specific task while minimizing interruptions, and grouping similar tasks together (like checking all email at once rather than throughout the day) to focus on then all at once during a specific chunk of time. This eliminates the extra time it takes to quickly shuttle from one activity to another and ultimately saves time as long stretches of the day are spent with greater focus and efficiency.

Pare Down Your Schedule

If you find yourself chronically multi-tasking out of necessity because there's simply too much to do, single-tasking can help (because you actually reduce the overall amount of time it takes to get things done) but you may benefit from cutting out some of the commitments in your schedule that are not absolutely necessary. Do you have any habits that drain your schedule but do not serve you or commitments that you could drop without any lasting, strongly negative consequences? Looking at your priorities and at your schedule, as it is now, considers if you can reduce the sheer number of things you need to do in a day, and you might feel less stressed and pressed for time.

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.