Why successful people work on one thing at a time

One of my favorite quotes from House of Cards. Source: Rojish

I grasped one of my most important productivity insights when I worked at Xtreme Labs: the importance of doing one thing at a time. Our VP of Engineering, Farhan Thawar, was a proponent of “monotasking,” and he warned against multitasking and distraction.

Professor Gloria Mark from the University of California, Irvine, told Fast Company that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after an interruption. Think about how many 23 minute chunks get wasted when you rapidly switch between tasks as you’re multitasking. Farhan called this time cost, “context switching.”

Similarly, not only does the distraction eat up time on its own (e.g., a funny five minute video), but it also takes time to drag your brain back up to speed on what you were doing before. Taken too far, it can become an addiction.

Imagine not feeling overwhelmed with tasks at work each day. Not only will you get more done, you’ll also feel better doing it. Here are four lessons I picked up along the way to get a lot more done:

1. Group tasks into themed days for batch processing

Categorize your tasks and bundle similar ones together. Your brain can think about, and execute on, them easily in rapid succession. This is how Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and Twitter, runs both companies simultaneously. His schedule, according to this interview with Techonomy Media:

  • Monday: Executive team meetings, 1–1s with management
  • Tuesday: Product
  • Wednesday: Marketing, communications, and growth
  • Thursday: Developers and partnerships
  • Friday: Company culture and recruiting

As Dorsey says, unavoidable interruptions will inevitably come up. You can still adapt to interruptions and prioritize. But theming your days serves as a simple reminder of what you’ve allocated your time towards, and how you should allocate your energy based on that. Or, if you can’t theme by day, theme each hour or two. (For example, you can batch email responses, meetings, reviews, etc.)

Bradley Cooper in Limitless. Probably where my strange obsession with focus and productivity started. Source: Movie Quotes and More

2. Schedule longer periods of uninterrupted time

Bushnell Keeler, the father of my friend Toby, always had this expression: “If you want to get one hour of good painting in, you have to have four hours of uninterrupted time.”
— David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish

Five one hour blocks might make for the same “amount” of time as one five hour block, but you can get a lot more done with the latter. Y Combinator founder Paul Graham calls this the maker’s schedule.

Whether you’re writing code, making decks, designing mockups, or anything else, set large chunks of time aside to make. If you want to get started with this on a smaller scale, try a 25-minute uninterrupted block of time (known in the productivity world as a pomodoro).

You’ll save a lot of time that was previously consumed by context switching. Make sure to set a clear goal (or clear milestones) you want to achieve by the end of the block of time.

3. Write everything down and organize it

As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things… So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search.
— Shelby Foote, in an interview with The Paris Review

Author David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Write things down so you can easily trigger memories and thoughts from your brain. If it’s something urgent or important, send an email to yourself. Make a to-do list every morning. Carry a notebook with you.

Sure, sometimes I feel like the guy from Memento. But in addition to better focus, it’s about feeling good about your work as well. I don’t have to worry about things I might’ve forgotten, and I stress myself out trying to remember every little thing I had to do. Instead, I’ve built a system outside of my brain to keep track of things.

4. Live in airplane mode

Do not many of us who fail to achieve big things . . . fail because we lack concentration — the art of concentrating the mind on the thing to be done at the proper time and to the exclusion of everything else?
— John D. Rockefeller, Titan

Text messages and emails might seem harmless, but they can drag your attention away from the task at hand. Set your devices on airplane mode (and use an app like Freedom on your laptop) and put it in a closed drawer or in another room. Efficiency and workflow consultant Edward G. Brown calls this strategy a “time lock,” and estimates personal productivity shoots up 40 to 60 percent after colleagues agree to use them. Author Neil Strauss calls it the Ulysses Strategy.

And, if you really do want to check Facebook and Instagram, batch it up in your day instead of snacking on it throughout (see point #1). I usually check Facebook when my day winds down and my energy is lower.

One bite at a time

Now you can do all of the above… Without fictional drug NZT! Source: PHP Agency

Your work doesn’t have to feel like an endless treadmill of tasks. You can get ahead of it. If monotasking all day sounds like a huge departure, start doing it for just an hour a day. Block off the time from email and messages, and use it just to concentrate on your work. Choose the fulfilment of monotasking over the short pleasures of multitasking, and you’ll feel better for it.

Herbert Lui is a former staff writer for Lifehacker. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Quartz, and The Globe and Mail. He writes a monthly newsletter where he shares books and quotes to make you happier, more creative, and more productive.

This post was originally published at HerbertLui.net.