Doing one thing at a time

In an era where there’s instant gratification available for just about any dimension of your life, it feels like we’re wired to never focus on anything for more than 20 minutes at a time, at most.

The literature on how this impacts productivity is well documented (try Googling “cognitive switching cost”). What’s less discussed is the effect it has on the way we experience the passage of time.

Speeding it up

After a particularly hectic day of frenzied multitasking, I had a realization – multitasking speeds up our subjective experience of how time passes.

Here’s my theory on why this happens. When you’re frequently multitasking – checking emails while on your Zoom call, browsing social media while speaking to someone on the phone, checking Slack while working on a project, or checking the status of a Doordash order as you write a blog post – you’re never truly present for any of it. Your attention is partly on one thing, then partly on another thing, and always fragmented between the two (or more) of them.

What you’re left with is a dull haze from having been everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The hallmark belief of a serial multitasker is believing that you never have enough time in a day. No matter what you do or how hard you work, the day always ends on a rushed and unfulfilled note.

I found this to be particularly true on days where I had a lot of activities or tasks that I didn’t enjoy doing. Because I didn’t enjoy them, I’d frequently escape into distraction – a form of “multitasking”, even though the other “task” is totally unnecessary. Examples of this include lengthy meetings where I’d check Slack and email or my (1.5-hour) Caltrain commute where I’d alternate between Spotify, YouTube videos, games, and reading to pass the time.

Slowing it down

In an attempt to have longer and more fulfilling days, I’ve been trying to do one thing at a time in the most literal sense for the past week.

For my morning runs, I focus only on running – no music, podcasts, audiobooks, or anything of the sort. Instead of reading the news while sipping my morning tea, I separate out the two activities – I read the news only after I’ve finished my tea. If I have a meeting or call, I try to dedicate my attention to it – no checking email, Slack, iMessage, or browsing the internet.

On days where I’m able to stick to this routine, the quality of my time feels dramatically different. I notice all sorts of details that were seemingly hidden; most of which are totally mundane yet simultaneously, and almost inexplicably, satisfying to notice. The layers of flavour in a cup of tea, the vibrancy of the greenery surrounding my neighbourhood, or the dust that’s accumulated on my bookshelf.

I also feel a lot less anxious. I’ve only realized this in retrospect, but multitasking trains you to be dissatisfied with the present regardless of how important or interesting your task/activity is. If you’ve been a multitasker for most of the day and suddenly switch to singletasking, it’ll feel wrong to do that. Your mind is now habituated to switching, and it doesn’t want to stop. In contrast, getting in the habit of doing one thing at a time does the opposite – when you’re focused, it feels good to go deep and keep going.

Lastly, I talked about how multitasking speeds up time earlier in this post. Singletasking does the exact opposite. Every day that I’ve committed to singletasking has felt like two “regular” ones. When you’re fully immersed in a given moment, that moment will pass very slowly. Just try focusing intently on your floor for three minutes!

Writing about time well spent

When I started this blog, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write about. I initially thought I’d write about some startup stuff, some personal interest stuff, and a bunch of random things in-between.

Over the past couple of weeks (and posts!) I’ve noticed that time management and, more specifically, the concept of “time well spent” has emerged as a focus area for me. I really enjoy writing/thinking about this space, so please get in touch! I’d love to hear any comments/ideas/questions you might have. 😁

– Thenuka

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