Stop Multitasking (At Least a Little Bit)

Think of a typical day, see it in your mind’s eye from start to finish. Are you multitasking? I don’t need to know you personally to know that at some point during the day, the answer is yes. We all do it. Now, you might actually believe you are good at multitasking. And you may very well be better at it than your spouse, neighbor, or coworker. But here’s the thing: multitasking hurts our performance, so even if you are better at it than someone else, it is still reducing your productivity. We can only hold 3-5 pieces of information in our minds at once (Cowan, 2010). The implication of this finding is staggering. When we multitask, we are undercutting ourselves in every domain of our lives - - things are taking us longer than they need to, the quality of our work is lower, and we are not giving our full attention to the people and things that matter most to us.

But how do we stop multitasking when this behavior may be encouraged, rewarded, or even required in our work environments and personal lives? Stopping altogether may be impossible but that barrier doesn’t have to stop us from reducing multitasking in specific areas of our lives.

We can begin by committing to spend 5 minutes per day intentionally directing our attention to one thing- a conversation, an important work task, or even a household chore. It might feel different, it might feel better, and it might show you just how effective we can be when we get out of our own way.

Here are some suggestions to maximize your 5 minutes:

·       Pick a specific task or time of day when you feel you have a good chance of being able to intentionally direct your attention to one thing. Eventually, you can use signs of cognitive overload (Nezu et al., 2012) to cue you to stop multitasking. Cognitive overload is that feeling of having “too many tabs open” in your mind; you may feel scattered, frenetic, or simply have noticed your efficiency dropping.

·       If you are tightly scheduled, set a timer. This will serve to contain the exercise and give you a clear beginning and end. It will also demonstrate that the time cost is manageable.

·       Be gentle with yourself when you notice you are distracted. Distraction is part of mindfulness. Moreover, your worries are not produce- they will keep and will be there for you to access at a later time. What is important to keep in mind is that this is about dialing into an experience, not avoiding it. Noticing the distraction and continuing alongside it strengthens your ability to focus far better than arguing with yourself about being distracted.

·       Use the concept of one-mindfulness (Linehan, 2014). Proceeding one-mindfully literally means doing one thing at a time and all the way. If you are in conversation with someone, give them your full attention: focus on their face, their non-verbals and the content of what they are saying. Giving your full attention to the best of your ability during a conversation, and not, say, worrying about what you need to do later that day, will invariably increase the quality of the interaction. If you are listening to music, try listening all the way- hear the layers to the music, the instruments, the cadence. What dynamic thing might live there that you might otherwise miss? Curiosity, non-judgmentalness, and willingness are hallmarks of the one-mindfulness strategy (Linehan, 2014).

·       It can often be easiest to begin with acts of savoring. This means putting your full attention towards something soothing or even the least bit pleasant. For example, closing your eyes and letting sunlight hit your face, eating a ripe orange slowly while doing absolutely nothing else, taking a mindful walk (Nezu et al., 2012) and being aware of your surroundings, or studying the face of someone you love.

Nehjla Mashal, PhD

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Borkovec, T. D. (2002). Life in the future versus life in the present. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 9(1), 76-80.

Cowan, N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57.

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT® Skills Training Manual. Guilford Publications.

Nezu, A. M., Nezu, C. M., & D'Zurilla, T. (2012). Problem-solving therapy: A treatment manual. Springer Publishing Company.