Goldilocks And The Three Bears: The Switch-, Multi-, And Single-Tasking Edition

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Ok, so the famous fairy tale might not be the first thing you think of when the topic of task completion comes up, but stay with me. 

The idea of multi-tasking has been around since the 1960s, but there are a couple of other task completion methods that have been gaining attention; switch-tasking and single-tasking are causing shifts in how people think about getting work done. A quick summary of each should help make this analogy clearer. 

Switch-tasking is when you are doing multiple but unconnected tasks that aren’t going to produce a singular outcome. This type of task completion requires you to switch your focus to and from the different activities. As I write this blog post, I’m also answering emails, editing a training document, and eating dinner. Every time I stop to grab a bite or formulate a response to a question from an email, I need to re-read the last few lines to find my place and refocus my train of thought. This type of task completion is challenging to sustain; it also results in lower productivity and more mistakes. Switch-tasking is hard, switch-tasking is Papa Bear. 

Multi-tasking is when you are doing multiple tasks that are connected to achieve a singular outcome. Driving a car is a valid example of multi-tasking because it requires you to perform numerous functions in order to get from Point A to Point B safely. This type of task completion is generally easy, as these tasks don’t require you to spend too much conscious brain power completing them. Mama Bear is a multi-tasker. 

Many people confuse multi-tasking and switch-tasking, thinking they are multi-tasking when they are working on several projects or doing several various tasks. They are most likely switch-tasking and, while your brain is capable of multi-tasking, it doesn’t perform well when tasked with completing unrelated activities. The constant state of shifting focus requires your mind to repeatedly stop and start again, which causes stress and wastes energy. This continual flux can attribute to the “burn-out” people experience in the workplace. 

Finally, single-tasking is when you are focusing on one singular task, free from distractions until that task is complete or a specified time period has elapsed. Microlearning is an example of single-tasking. If you’d like to read more about microlearning, feel free to read my blog post, Microlearning: What Is It, and How Can You Use It?Shameless plug for my previous post aside, microlearning is ideally set up for single-tasking as it focuses on one single, narrow topic and is designed to be completed in a short amount of time. While this type of task completion requires focus, it is the most efficient way to complete tasks. Let me introduce Baby Bear. 

Switch-tasking is a cognitive whirlwind that is difficult to maintain and ultimately unproductive. Multi-tasking is efficient, but it mainly works for automatic activities that don’t require much cognitive focus. Single-tasking is the idyllic middle ground that requires cognitive thought, while your brain comfortably processes the single task. So, if Goldilocks is looking to get some things done, she should start single-tasking. 

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