All of us have had the experience of doing too many things at once. Of driving while listening to the radio, eating a burrito, and talking to a friend all at once. While it’s amazing that human beings can juggle so many things at once—a testament to our versatility—it’s also a fantastic way to end up with salsa in your lap, or even to get into an accident. (Check out Werner Herzog’s heart-rending documentary, “From One Second to the Next,” about the perils of driving while texting.)
Other situations may not be quite as dangerous, but still there are drawbacks to splitting your attention. Imagine college students, say, trying to win at a video game, drink alcohol, listen to music, talk to several friends, eat a pizza, and flirt with potential sex partners at the same time. While that can be fun, they will probably fail or do poorly at most of them. Simultaneously doing a good job at so many activities is hard. And the old adage that anything worth doing is worth doing well is still as true as it ever was.
The antidote to doing too many things at once, is, of course, to only do one thing at a time. That’s the most basic definition of concentration: doing one thing at a time.
Doing one thing at a time is probably the most basic habit of concentration, and one of the most powerful. It is the easiest thing you can do to create a massive increase in your ability to focus.
The term for working with split attention is multitasking. Multitasking enjoys a great reputation currently, but he fact is that we are never actually multitasking. Instead the brain switches between each task quickly, and does each activity in succession. The trouble is that each task-switch actually has a cost overhead; it’s not easy for your brain to switch tasks. It takes time and invokes a second level of executive functioning, meaning that you have to use a lot of resources to switch tasks. This task-switching overhead can actually become quite a drain on your overall effectiveness. You’ll do each thing much worse than if you had done it on its own. And the task-switching overhead multiplies exponentially with the number of things being juggled.
That means when you reduce the number of things you are mentally juggling, the cognitive cost is vastly reduced. Just changing from three objects to two objects frees up a tremendous amount of overhead. The best, however, is to reduce the number of things you are doing or thinking about to one at a time. This lowers the juggling overhead to zero, and allows you to focus 100 percent of your brain on a topic.
Develop a habit of doing one thing at a time
Living in a world of distractions is nothing more than a habit we have gotten used to. The answer is to begin making a new habit of doing just one thing at a time. Every time you catch yourself doing too many things at once, come back to just the essential thing that matters. Practice this all day long, whether working or playing. Gently remind yourself, “One thing at a time.”
Success depends on having good self discipline and good boundaries with other people. If someone interrupts you, or engages you while you are busy, stop and let them know that you’ll get back with them later. Or if it can’t wait, completely stop what you are doing, engage with the person, and then once everything is handled come back to what you were doing previously.
Usually the hardest person to maintain such firm boundaries with is yourself. Our habits of distraction have developed over an entire lifetime. We crave a superfluidity of stimulation in the environment, almost like an addiction. There is an almost physical urge to turn on the television, or to check the smartphone.
You can quickly determine how strong this need for distraction is by experimenting with doing just one thing at a time. Shut everything off and do something simple with no distractions. The first thing that happens, often, is that mind begins to complain “This is boring. There’s something on TV. Why can’t I just play some music? What’s wrong with eating while studying?” And so on. You might experience anything from mild discomfort to an almost irresistible compulsion to bring back the distractions.
That’s OK. That’s the starting place. Just have compassion for yourself, and attempt to enforce some discipline about doing one thing at a time while trying to concentrate. Concentrating without distractions will eventually reveal itself to be incredibly pleasant. Unlike getting tangled up in a spaghetti of distractions, it can leave you feeling energized and refreshed. Strong, stable focus can really increase your feelings of satisfaction and sense of richness in whatever you are doing. You can even enter flow—a very calm, focused state that is so pleasurable it’s worth doing for its own sake, regardless of the activity. It’s not that difficult. All it takes is a little practice.
So try doing one thing at a time. And read the rest of the Concentration Series to learn more about how to increase your powers of attention.
photo by 55Laney69