You are probably familiar with the word multitasking. However, you might not have come across the terms switch-tasking and single-tasking. These three different ways of working all have a significant impact on your productivity and (mental) energy.

The word multi-tasking is often used incorrectly by people who are actually referring to switch-tasking. Here’s how they differ:

Multitasking is when you are doing multiple connected tasks, all focused on achieving the same result. For example, when you are driving a car, you need to multitask to achieve the desired outcome of going safely from point A to point B. This process involves many tasks, such as using the accelerator, clutch, gear shift and/or brakes; checking rear-view and wing mirrors; watching the dials (particularly the speedometer!); keeping an eye on the road ahead and other vehicles; and reading signposts.

Switch-tasking is when you are busy switching among different un-connected tasks that are not focused on the same outcome. An example of switch-tasking is writing this blog post, stopping to read an email that popped up on my screen and sending a reply, picking up my phone that pinged with a text message and reading and responding to it, answering a question from a colleague, and returning to the post.

Single-tasking is when you focus on a single task while minimizing potential distractions (preferably to zero!), until the task is completed or a specified period of time has elapsed.

Your brain is capable of multi-tasking, but it doesn’t perform at its best when it is switch-tasking. The brain functions optimally when your mind is in a so-called flow state — when you are able to concentrate with laser focus on the task at hand and you can maximize the use of your mental energy to achieve results.

Switch-tasking continually disturbs the flow state … which is unfortunate, because when you are in flow, you produce better results, you are more creative and you solve problems more easily. Additionally, research shows that it can take several minutes to return to a flow state after a disruption and that you make more mistakes.

Thus, switch-tasking leads to lower productivity and quality and costs more time; it’s an energy leak. It can also be dangerous, such as when people multitask as they drive a car and simultaneously switch-task by using their smartphone. Switch-tasking also increases stress levels.

With all of these downsides, I recommend you immediately stop switch-tasking and start single-tasking as much as possible (while occasionally multitasking). The main way to do so is to avoid as many disruptions as possible, so that you reduce the temptation to be distracted. Here are some tips:

  • Only open your email account at certain times during the day.
  • Turn off all notifications on your computer and smartphone.
  • Close all applications on your computer except the ones you need for the current task.
  • When you want to single-task, turn off your phone (also do this in meetings and creative sessions!).
  • When talking on your phone, close your laptop and focus on the conversation.
  • Allocate a block of time for a specific task, and shut yourself away from others.

The more you single-task, the more bang for your mental energy buck you’ll gain, and the higher your productivity and the quality of your work will be.

Switch-tasking versus Single-tasking Exercise