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Multitasking and Focus – Is it better to do one thing at a time?

8 Jun 2009 | Business Life, Personal Productivity

Juggle_ballsI'm also a great multi-tasker, but sometimes I wonder if it is not more efficient to focus on one thing at a time. The busyness of multi-tasking sometimes seems to produce much activity, albeit enjoyable, but no firm results. What do you think Grace?

Thanks to Jacqueline’s comment on my last post, I’ve been reminded of the many times I’ve heard "Isn’t it better to focus on one thing at a time?" – in fact I think I’ve even been known to say it myself, probably to my son when he’s been holding a toy in one hand, a melting ice-cream in the other and trying to negotiate a big step at the same time.

This has gotten me thinking about the definition of multitasking. 

Strictly speaking as my husband would say, in computer terms it’s the simultaneous execution of multiple tasks. However in reality, when people multitask, their focus and efforts may not necessarily be equally divided across all the tasks.

I’m no juggler myself, but I have noticed that most jugglers tend to get one ball going first, then add another and then another. And when all the balls are in the air, they then turn their focus onto the one they want to perform a trick with. Equally, when we multitask, we may not finish something before starting the next, but we usually get one thing off the ground before shifting our focus. I guess you could say we can layer our focus.

Then there are times when the tasks we combine use different parts of our brain, for example – talking on the phone while stirring the chilli, or listening to a teleseminar while ironing. My hands are quite happy to focus on the ironing, while another part of my brain is taking in and thinking through what I hear. It doesn’t work with all things of course – every time I’ve tried to breastfeed while something’s cooking – however simple – it gets burned. I’ve come to realise that I go into a different time zone when breastfeeding, and my notion of 15 minutes becomes more like 30, and we end up with what my unimpressed son calls ‘very toasted’ chicken nuggets.

There’s also a question of how you carve up your time. As a full time mum, part-time coach, owner of two businesses and reluctant housewife – I have chosen not to wait until my children are in school before continuing with my career, so in terms of the pre-school years, I am multi-focused. However, in the course of each day or week, there are times when I am purely focused on the kids or a client.

You could also break up each task into varying degrees of focus. For example, a friend of mine who runs an aromatherapy business often delivers some of her orders at the same time as doing the school run. As long as she’s given herself the time and focus to prepare and package the order beforehand, I’m sure she’s more than capable of delivering it while remembering to collect her children and having a conversation about their school day.

So back to your question Jacqueline, yes it can sometimes be easy to get carried away with being busy when multitasking, without producing firm results, but then that can also be the case when you’re just working on one project. While lack of focus can in some cases take longer to notice when multitasking, it isn’t necessarily an unavoidable side effect. In fact, by having a limited amount of time to do several jobs, I wonder if multitasking can make us more decisive about our goals and actions, and actually improve our focus?


  1. Jacqueline

    I am actually a very good multi-tasker and see it as a very useful skill to be used, as you’ve pointed out, in certain situations. I suppose my concern for myself is about overwhelm, but I agree that even if you do focus on one thing, you may still not complete it – I have definitely experienced this! Perhaps the brain needs to be stimulated by a variety of things to actually maintain it’s focus.
    Your suggestion that having less time on a task may actually improve your focus makes sense to me. I wonder though if the quality of that focus is at it’s optimum.
    I notice that if I give my mind periods of rest such as in meditation or just sitting in silence, my focus is much better.
    Perhaps it is not so important whether you multi-task or not but what is important is the quality of focus, which may be best served with resting the brain from time to time. Interesting subject. Thanks for answering my question.

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About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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