How to Focus On One Thing When You Have a Long To-Do List

A woman sits at a desk reading a magazine while talking on the phone

Is your to-do list running your life? 

There’s no shame in admitting it. For too long to-do lists have continued to grow longer and longer, forcing us to take on multiple tasks at once. But science tells us that’s actually not the best use of our time or energy and we should instead focus on one thing at a time. 

It might not seem realistic, but monotasking, as it’s often referred to, is a good way to ensure that you’re getting even more done. Letting go of multitasking means that you can more easily drown out distractions, put more energy into the tasks that really require it and move through the tasks that always seem to linger on your to-do list.

Why we can’t multitask well 

The truth is that the human brain wasn’t meant to multitask, which may explain why you feel so scrambled when you’re trying to accomplish so much. Hopping back and forth between tasks results in needing more time to refocus, which essentially hurts what you’re trying to do in the first place, which is to save time.

"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," neuroscientist Earl Miller tells National Public Radio. "Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not.”

The human brain evolved this way out of safety, researchers have found. Doing too much at one time left early humans susceptible to threats. Today, multitasking looks more like taking a phone call and writing an email at the same time, which is nearly impossible, Miller says. 

While it can seem like an impossible habit to escape, doing one thing at a time can have a lot of benefits: 

  • Better work: Focusing all of your energy on one thing means that you can commit to quality. That email you wrote while on the phone probably isn’t as clear and concise as one you put all of your attention into.
  • Better focus: We all have tasks that deserve our full-attention, but it can be hard to commit to when we have a lot of other work to do. Focusing on one task at a time will increase focus, making the commitment much easier. 
  • Better time management: Monotasking forces us to be better planners and use our time more wisely because we have to make important decisions about what to focus on and when.

Getting stuck in a cycle of multitasking is probably your normal mode, and breaking out of it might seem like a lot of work, but a few daily changes can make it easier and help you work more efficiently.

Prioritize tasks 

One of the biggest reasons why we multitask is because we haven’t adequately prioritized all the things we need to do. Think about the days that you are busiest and how many tasks you actually complete. You more than likely start a lot of the items on your to-do list, but only completely finish a few.

The best way to prevent this is to start by prioritizing your list. Doing so will help you limit multitasking and focus on working on one thing at a time. A few ways to do this include: 

Numbering your tasks: A little preparation can go a long way. Take your to-do list and start numbering the tasks.

  • Tasks labeled with a ‘1’ are top priorities. You only want to label one or two tasks as top priority, otherwise you may find yourself in the same old multitasking cycle.
  • Tasks labeled with a ‘2’ aren’t items on your list that are on fire, but they’re important and should be completed as soon as possible.
  • Tasks that are labeled ‘3’ are smaller tasks, potentially could be put off and don’t require a lot of focus. This method will help you sort out your tasks so that you know where to spend your energy. 

Eisenhower matrix method: If you’re really at a loss of how to prioritize everything you need to do, try this. Create four categories:

  • Urgent and important: These are the most timely and important – do these first!
  • Important, not urgent: This will be your deep-focus work. Your deadline may be further out, so create some time for these items, but they don’t need to be done right away. 
  • Urgent, not important: Oftentimes, these are tasks somebody has asked from you, so they have a sense of urgency but don’t necessarily serve your core goals. Consider whether you can delegate these items.
  • Not important, not urgent: Delegate, schedule for later or reconsider whether you need to do them at all. 

Carve out time for deep work

As much as we may want to take our time on every task and eliminate multitasking, it’s probably not realistic. Instead, try re-working your day so that you aren’t constantly jumping from task to task. The goal is to limit disruptions, which can throw all concentration off. When you stop working on an important task to answer an email or take a call, it can take up to 20 minutes to refocus on your original task. That’s essentially time lost during your day. 

Instead, carve out time for communications so that when you really need to buckle down and focus, you won’t be tempted to multitask when it’s not helpful. 

You can think of this way of working as task batching, which isn’t necessarily multitasking, but it does help you arrange your time in a way that you can complete similar tasks at the same time. 

Similarly, you might want to try time blocking. This is when you organize your day in a way that dedicates blocks of time to specific tasks. 

These methods don’t force you to give up multi-tasking. After all, sometimes it makes sense. It instead helps you to monotask when it’s important and requires your full attention. 

Written by Kara Mason.

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