Here’s a newsflash: among humans, at least, there is no such thing as true multitasking. That’s the premise of a new book, Singletasking: Get More Done — One Thing at a Time by leadership expert Devora Zack, and it’s no empty claim. As Zack writes, the brain is simply (well, not so simply) incapable of focusing on multiple, attention-demanding tasks. She quotes a Stanford University neuroscientist, who clarifies that multitasking is actually “switching very quickly between tasks.” And as Zack writes, such rapid switching back and forth is a hopelessly inefficient, ineffective way to work. In fact, it can lower our productivity by 40 percent. Focus on that for a moment.
For anyone who wants to be a better manager, more productive worker, smarter thinker, or all around more successful taskmaster, this book is a cut above many self-help offerings. Unlike some of its shelf-mates at your friendly local bookstore (or online behemoth), it’s filled with surprising information. Its carefully reasoned argument is big on evidence and light on gimmicks. Detailing the actual processes of the brain, such as the pathways of electrical synapses, Zack notes that multitasking can actually backfire by causing them to short circuit. The bottom line: we are not computers. And in fact multitasking was a term first used (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) in reference to computer processing. It’s another example of a buzzword adopted and re-defined where the new definition, at least in terms of human functioning, is a myth.
What to do instead? Zack outlines, step by step and concept by concept, a clear solution to our muddled thinking and lack of genuine productivity: singletasking. Along with a singular focus, our days should include intentional breaks to recharge. She cites a Harvard Business Review study (Zack went to high-quality sources) on the daily habits of the most effective workers. Turns out that top performers actually sit down and eat lunch: No staring at the screen as they take forkfuls of cafeteria salad. Lunch is lunch. Thus fed, the brain is rejuvenated, and ready to concentrate yet again.
Singletasking is not a fantasy solution: consulting source after source, Zack offers compelling — indeed irrefutable — evidence that it’s the only way to work, and free ourselves of a career and life beset by distraction. Indeed, she writes that we have devolved into a culture addicted to distraction, exacerbated by the 24/7 access that technology has wreaked. We may equate being overwhelmed — with tasks and to-dos and information and media — with actually getting a lot done, but that’s a fallacy. And it’s damaging, as well: two documented byproducts of this mindset are rapidly decreasing attention spans, and a learned aversion in our brains to reflection and introspection. As Zack writes, it would simply take too much time, and draw us away from that endless, meaningless feed, and so we move farther and farther away from our true selves, and thus from the source for our own creativity and intelligent thinking.
The book is filled with useful techniques for regaining our singular focus, and for also reacquainting ourselves with our actual selves. Neatly structured, with a clear path for development from beginning to end, the book offers practical, easy to follow exercises. There are strategies for decluttering all aspects of life, including the home atmosphere. There are tips for facing challenges we don’t want to face. There’s also a compelling argument for learning how to say no. As she writes (in a tone that’s smart but easy to read), “No is the new yes.” Rather than yes our colleagues or clients all the time, say no — until we can authentically demonstrate our responsibility to them by singularly focusing on the task.
Zack writes from that whence she knows: she’s been there herself, addicted to the dubious thrill of getting nothing done while intensely busy all the time. Actually, she must have gotten something done, since her qualifications are stellar: among her leadership consulting clients are major organizations, such as the London School of Business, Deloitte, the Smithsonian, and Mensa. But it was when she slowed down and calmed her mind that the good stuff really began to happen. Bolstered by hard science and top-shelf research, this is a book filled with promise.
For more information on Singletasking and Devora Zack, visit the official site.
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