The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

If you attack the tasks sequentially, you finish the first one in just three days, the second in six, the third in nine, and so on. The idea that it’s better to finish your tasks in sequence than to jump around from one to another is quite difficult to accept, well, for others.

The pros and cons of multitasking is so often discussed that we even have a word for it, multitasking (on repeat).

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

But, how about doing one thing at a time?

Andrew O’Connell of the Harvard Business Review explore what’s good and what’s bad about not juggling tasks. He cites a study done on 21 Italian judges, where 10 who did the most juggling of active cases had a lower average likelihood of closing a case in a given week.

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

Killing two birds with one stone optimizes time and leads to greater efficiency. But does efficiency lead to happiness?Hmmm…

We seek to maximize efficiency by breaking ourselves up. The more tasks at once, the more we split. Why waste time simply driving when I can call Steve at the same time, right? However, in that way we will never be 100 percent focused on either the road or Steve.

When we multitask we can’t give ourselves to the present.  Instead, we sacrifice now for later with the hopes of future happiness. If I can get two done now, I’ll have more time then.

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

But 3 researchers — Decio Coviello of HEC Montreal, Andrea Ichino of the University of Bologna, and Nicola Persico of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School — have shown why the sequential approach to completing tasks makes a lot of sense.

Here’s the logic: Let’s say six people simultaneously give you six similar three-day, ASAP tasks, and you juggle them, spending a half day on each in turn.

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time


On the other hand, although, you make good progress on each one as the days go by, you don’t complete any of the tasks until Day 16, when you finally finish the first two. You finish the next two on Day 17 and wrap up the last two on Day 18. But all of the assigners have had to wait a long time, and they’re all annoyed with you for taking so long.

A big incentive for juggling, is that when you’re doing tasks for multiple assigners, you feel pressure from all of them, and sometimes they even lobby you to put their tasks at the top of your queue. You want to be able to say “Ah yes, I was just working on that, and it’s coming along nicely,” rather than “I haven’t looked at it, but it’s on my list.”

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

And then there’s the major setback. I’m well aware that sustained effort on a given task allows you get into that flow state of contented absorption in which the rest of the world falls away. Sustained effort leading to task completion allows you to achieve psychological closure, a human need so deep that, as one study showed, interrupting people in a task, especially at a climactic moment, stimulates a need for closure that spills over and makes them more decisive in unrelated tasks.

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

However, going back to the advantage point, when you juggle, your tasks interact with each other, and that can be a good thing. As they compete for your attention, their specific problems come into sharp relief, and new solutions present themselves. You get out of a rut, you stay fresh. You borrow ideas from one task and apply them to others.


Another advantage to juggling that was suggested by a recent study from Haiyang Yang of Insead Singapore and colleagues: Getting your head out of one task and into another allows you to temporarily shut down your conscious thinking about the first one so that your unconscious mind can go to work on it. Under the right circumstances, unconscious thought can be more effective than conscious thought in producing innovative ideas. In Yang’s study, a three-minute time-out for a highly distracting word task helped people come up with more brilliant ideas.

The Ups and Downs Of Doing One Thing At A Time

It’s like, after you leave a tough mental task, think about something else, and then return, the task somehow gets easier. You think it’s mainly because of this phenomenon that you first got into my task-jumping habit, but you can also realize that juggling enables productive comparison and a choice of tasks to work on.

There you have it folks, that’s the ups and downs of doing one thing at a time.

In a nutshell, it’s all up to you on how you tackle things efficiently. We are just weighing out things here.


via Harvard Business Review

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