The multitasking legend: Why tenacious focus leads to a better life

Yes, we can do multiple things at once.

On my walk yesterday, I was listening to the On Being podcast by Krista Tippet while my dog Hank, was at my side. You could say I was doing three things at once.

You too, are capable of doing more than one thing at a time.

What's impossible however, is focusing on more than one substantive task simultaneously. Multitasking bulldozes our brains to switch from one task to another very quickly.

The problem is that we often don't recognize how costly these switches are and thus, we press on switching from task to task assuming that we are getting more things done. We also usually call this "balance."

However, this footing we relentlessly try to attain might be one of the greatest legends of our day.

By definition, balance is a moderate middle between extremes. It rolls off the tongue nicely and makes us feel comfortable. It's idealistic.

But I have a hard time digesting this definition of balance. I'm challenging it and inviting you along with me.

Consider this idea: Rather than going a mile-wide with substantive tasks switching from one thing to another, it's better to go a mile-deep with one thing with unbroken attention.

In other words, tenacious focus is superior to scattered multi-tasking when it comes to the things we deem most important.

Here's why: Switching cost is the disruption in human performance that we shoulder when we attempt to go a mile-wide with multiple tasks at the same time.

Researchers tested  300 Michigan State students on their ability to manage interruptions while taking a computer test. The interruptions came in the form of pop-ups that forced them to enter a code. The interruptions lasted anywhere from 2.8 seconds to four seconds.

With the 2.8 second interruptions, researchers found twice the amount of errors when the student returned to the computer test. With four second interruption, the error rate quadrupled.

Translation: We can't multi-task effectively.

This concept of the switching cost is getting more attention in the knowledge working industry. For those of us who use our minds and emotions to find problems and provide solutions, this idea of tenacious focus is more important than ever, considering that we live in the age of distraction.

But we can also embed the importance of tenacious focus instead of scattered multi-tasking into other areas of our lives that we claim are important to us.

Here's a humbling question for both of us to chew on: Where in my life am I trying to multi-task at the expense of someone or something I declare as a priority?

Maybe you haven't once watched your daughter's soccer game because you sit on the sideline answering emails the whole time?

Perchance the noise of interruption is choking your spiritual life?

Is the quality and possibly the quantity of your work suffering because of distraction?

Perhaps you've over-committed with your responsibilities, leaving no time for you to go to the gym and invest in your self care?

In order to get extraordinary results in the things we generally claim as important - relationships, spirituality, service and health - requires tenacious focus. Meaning, when we give our full attention to one thing at a time, it takes time away time from everything else.

This makes balance - if defined by the normative standard - impossible. Instead, extreme focus at the cost of everything else is the linchpin to balance.

The solution to conquering the switching cost gives us both reason to jubilate. It's simple: Do one thing at a time.

When we're working, let's just work.

When we're resting, let's just rest.

When we're playing, let's just play.

When we're loving, let's just love.