Tony Schwartz, at the Harvard Business Review, says dividing attention between tasks is dangerous.
He says digital devices with always-on connections train us to split attention between tasks without ever focusing on one.
Schwartz says this hurts productivity increasing the time to finish a task by 25 per cent.
Always-on notifications are always-on distractions
In The magic of doing one thing at a time Schwartz recommends setting aside time for what he calls absorbed focus.
Or concentration. It is an old-fashioned idea. Remove all distractions and work on a single task.
This is the opposite of multi-tasking, which is rarely a productive way of working.
Some tasks are tougher without focus
Take writing; the art of putting words on paper or on screen. It’s possible to write in a busy, noisy office. Journalists do this all the time, successful newsrooms can be boisterous places.
Early in their careers journalists learn how to achieve a short-term laser like focus. It isn’t always easy. It is harder if you need to pick your phone up every few minutes to deal with incoming calls, mails or other messages.
Get it right and you can achieve a Zen-like flow.
Start by turning off notifications. Your computer may have a focus mode. Apple Macs are good at this allowing you to switch notifications off for an hour or the rest of the day.
One advantage in the old days was that journalists hammering dozens of manual typewriters at once created what amounted to a wall of white noise.
Technology can help with focus. There are distraction free writing tools. The iPhone’s silent button is a godsend.
While you can multi-task on an iPad, that is not the way it was originally designed. iPad apps lend themselves to taking over the entire screen so that you focus on a single window. iA Writer is great for doing this, but all iPad writing tools can work in a similar way.
The iPad’s self-imposed one-app-at-a-time limitation can make writers more productive. There are other jobs where having multiple windows open at the same time is essential, but you’ll focus better with just one.
Jack Vinson has another take on The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time at the Knowledge Jolt blog. There he shares his tips on how to set aside blocks of time for intense focus.