Why It’s So Important to Only Do One Thing at a Time

Multi-tasking can get you through the day, but “deep work” is important to your sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Posted in , May 31, 2019

Focusing deeply on a project

“Zero distractions.” That’s what Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, says is required to have a session of focused productivity he calls “deep work.”

Is a zero-distraction moment even available to most of us these days? After all, every technical innovation that makes our lives more convenient, like phones and apps and streaming entertainment, are built for a multi-tasking lifestyle.

Listen to a podcast. Add to your grocery list. Press “buy” on an online shopping cart. Reserve a table for this weekend. All of these are things many of us do at the same time—and all too often while we’re doing something else, like working.

Newport described the drawbacks of this lifestyle in an interview with The New York Times: “Every time you switch your attention from one target to another and then back again, there’s a cost. This switching creates an effect that psychologists call attention residue, which can reduce your cognitive capacity for a non-trivial amount of time before it clears. If you constantly make 'quick checks’ of various devices and inboxes, you essentially keep yourself in a state of persistent attention residue, which is a terrible idea if you’re someone who uses your brain to make a living.”

Instead of flitting from activity to activity, Newport urges us to actively make time for “deep work” every day, time when we are focused on a cognitively challenging task without interruption from anything else. This could be knitting or reading or learning a language or meeting a professional goal. The important part is that it needs to be an activity you can commit to investing your energy in wholeheartedly. 

Getting in the habit of working deeply will, says Newport, lead you to the inevitable conclusion that “concentration is a super power.” 

What in your life would you like to approach with a “deep work” mentality?

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