Do 1 Thing But Do It Well: On (Trying to Stop) Multitasking

Thursday is a great day to do that 1 thing you don’t want to do but also don’t want to continue thinking about doing


By now you have probably read Larry Kim’s Medium piece about how multi-tasking is killing our brains.

The gist of it is that when we think we are accomplishing several things at once, we are actually just doing several things badly. This is not a terribly novel idea — “mindfulness” has been a subject of sermons about work as well as life for decades now — but Kim marshals and presents his evidence well. My favorite part is probably the bit about IQ:

A study at the University Of London showed that subjects who multitasked while performing cognitive tasks experienced significant IQ drops. In fact, the IQ drops were similar to what you see in individuals who skip a night of sleep or who smoke marijuana. Now that’s a terrifying thought. …

Some studies have shown that even the opportunity to multitask, such as knowledge of an unread email in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points! The constant thrill of a new bolded email in our inbox keeps us ever-distracted. …

For men, multitasking can drop IQ as much as 15 points, essentially turning you into the cognitive equivalent of an 8-year-old. Don’t be surprised when you find yourself stocking up on pop rocks.

I hadn’t noticed that keeping multiple tabs open and hopping from one to the other as each seemed to request my attention was making me stupider, but I had noticed it was making me tense and unhappy. Too much adrenaline for too little reward. No wonder I always look forward to the relief of stepping away from my computer for a book break: reading is one of the few things I allow myself to do with complete attention — and so reading is one of the few things from which I get complete enjoyment. What are the others? Sex. Showering. Yoga. Not much else. The vast majority of any given day is spent toggling between half-finished projects and thoughts until I close my computer, usually as overwhelmed as when I opened it.

My one thing today is to X out my Gmail tab and not log in again until an appointed time; and, as Kim advises, to turn off those distracting little notification sounds on my phone, at least while I’m working. More broadly, I will try to focus on each task until I finish it before moving on to the next.

What’s your 1 thing?

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