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Posted by Lauren Barham on July 05, 2017

The old adage “killing two birds with one stone” has taken on a whole new meaning in the modern working world, where we talk on speaker phone, check our emails, drive to work, and inhale a sandwich all at the same time. Somehow, we manage to get it all done (partially), but did we actually pay attention to what was said on the phone or enjoy the taste of the sandwich? Definitely not.

Multitasking is a common practice with the many distractions people face throughout the day. The belief that multitasking helps us accomplish everything we have to get done, however, is a myth. Research has shown that multitasking negatively affects performance and decreases productivity by up to 40%. Therefore, while many people think that doing multiple things at once is efficient, it is actually counterproductive because the tasks are usually performed with less attention and lower quality.

Instead, the best way to accomplish all of one’s tasks is to ‘unitask,’ or do one thing at a time with full effort and attention. Unitasking involves a conscious commitment to the task at hand and being fully immersed and engaged in the experience. Mindfulness helps to hone unitasking skills because it cultivates a present-moment awareness in which one can carefully focus on what they are currently doing instead of worrying about other obligations or tasks. Unitasking thus produces a higher quality performance and increases productivity by enabling a person to execute a task effectively and efficiently and then move on to the next one.

The focus that mindfulness brings can make a positive difference in both men’s and women’s lives. But judging by the amount of multitasking women do and the amount of anxiety they feel, women stand to benefit even more. A study by Michigan State University found that women multitask 10 hours more per week than men, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from anxiety in their lifetime. There are also differences between women in the way they handle stress, with single women experiencing less stress and feeling as if they can better manage their stress than their married counterparts.  

It may seem like the odds are stacked against women in the stress department, but this does not have to be the case! By recognising sources of stress and becoming mindfully aware of when you start to feel stressed, you can employ effective strategies to help you cope. While it may not be possible to avoid all the stressors of modern life, the first step to finding clarity among the chaos is to stop trying to multitask and to start practicing how to unitask.     

How can I become a unitasker?
To unitask, we have to resist the multiple distractions of our environment and our own addictive habits, get very clear about what we want to do, and commit to doing it.

Unitasking: Tips for working women

1.) Plan your day – 20 minutes at night can save you time at work

How many times have you gone to bed exhausted after a long day, only to find your mind running through every possible scenario of the upcoming day as soon as your head hits the pillow? To calm your mind, get a restful sleep, and avoid feeling overwhelmed the next day, dedicate about 20 minutes BEFORE you go to sleep to write down a plan for the following day. Go through what meetings you have, how much free time you expect to have, and what you can realistically achieve in the designated time slots. Prioritise your tasks and assess if you need to call on any colleagues to help. This will enable you to pre-empt issues that could arise and will leave you feeling prepared for the day - improving your sleep also.

2.) Divide your work day into unitasking episodes and define each one

With the daily plan you make for yourself at night, dedicate a specific time for you to do each task. For example, assign 4:00-5:00 PM for preparing that presentation you haven’t had time to work on, and ONLY focus on completing that task with all of your attention and effort. Then, you will be able to complete the task efficiently and be satisfied with the end result, and then tackle the next unitasking episode!

3.) Have a permanent unitasking day

With all the responsibilities you have both at work and at home, it may be challenging to plan out your day to a ‘T’ and neatly accomplish all of your tasks every day of the week. Ok, it may even feel impossible. Unexpected problems may pop-up throughout the week, but carving out one permanent “Unitasking Day” can help you to feel more in control. Choose one day where you will make it your goal to only focus on one task at a time and to really be attentive to what you are doing. This is a great way to practice Unitasking and help it to become a habit in other days of the week as well, as you will find it adds more order to your day and increases the quality of your work. 

4.) Ask yourself “What do I really want (or need) to be doing right now?”

It is easy to feel lost and overwhelmed amid all of your responsibilities, but take time out to assess what you actually need to get done. This will break the mental chatter of all the other different tasks you need to do, help you find clarity, and focus on the most important and urgent task you need to be doing at that moment. Sometimes there is a contradiction between what we want to do and what we need to be doing, and taking a moment to distinguish between the two can help us to mindfully complete what we need to do so that we can then go onto enjoy what we want to do.

Author: Dana Zelicha is a leading academic on the topic of Mindful Leadership, graduate of the London School of Economics (LSE), and a former corporate high-flyer who’s first-hand experience with the mounting stress and pressure of the modern workforce inspired her to launch OWBA—The Well Being Agency (wellbeingagency.com). Her goal is simple: to help the organisational world become more Mindful. To arrange an informal conversation, email Dana at - info@wellbeingagency.com

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