Let’s be honest; we’ve both got too many tabs open right now. We’re multitasking, just trying to get a handle on our to-do list. It’s tough. And overwhelmingly normal. Having all those open tabs is distracting, and we’re constantly interrupted as we try to spread our work evenly among all our tasks. Sure, it feels like things are getting done faster, but it’s creating more stress.
More stress means being less productive. It might feel like being able to multitask will boost your productivity, but you might just be churning out work. And just because you’re checking off more of your daily boxes, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily more efficient.
The one task method is a way to fight the urge to multitask.
What is the one task method?
Here’s the basic premise: take one task from your to-do list and make that the only thing you plan to accomplish that day. The goal of the one task method is not to do less work; it’s about doing the same amount of work — and maybe more — with less stress.
The one task method is a kind of micro-habit. A micro-habit is a smaller, more manageable chunk of a regular habit. Say you want to read more books. “Read more” is the goal. “Read for an hour a day” is the habit you’re trying to build to achieve that goal. But maybe you’re having trouble reading for that long, or you just can’t find the time to do it. So instead, you create a micro-habit: “read one page a day.” That’s easy enough that most people can manage it.
When confronted with a new habit — like reading for an hour every day — it’s easy to get discouraged. If you don’t have time to read for that full hour, you might mark the day as a failure and not read at all. By setting the micro-habit, you’re making sure that you’re always getting some of your reading done, even if it’s not the full hour you initially wanted to hit. And isn’t one page better than zero?
The one task method is the workplace equivalent of this micro-habit. If your team uses Asana, you might very well be confronted with an extensive to-do list every time you open it. The length of that list can cause undue stress. So instead of coming into the office thinking “I have 12 tasks to do today” you choose one task that’s easily achievable and set it as the first thing you’ll do that day.
It’s about taking what feels impossible and making it more manageable so you can achieve it regularly.
How does it work?
So how does the one task method work in practice? Here’s a run-down:
- Open your to-do list.
- Prioritize urgent tasks.
- Pick one task.
- Break off a smaller, more manageable chunk.
This process is best done at the start of a workday when you open up your calendar. That way, you know exactly how to plan out your day, and you get a quick boost of motivation from focusing on a single task (instead of flicking back and forth between tabs).
Let me give you an example of how I use this method in my daily life as a copywriter at Unito.
My work includes contributing to the Unito blog, and I’ll typically write two blog posts a week. That involves pitching the topic, writing the first draft and — often — several rewrites to create a polished piece of content. This blog post? Three edits.
If I came into the office thinking “today I have to work on two blog posts on top of all the other writing work on my plate,” I’d start my day completely stressed out.
But when I open my to-do list, I still want to prioritize writing these blog posts. So, I’ll break the “Write 2 Blog Posts” task into a smaller chunk, something I can easily accomplish in a day.
Something like “Write the introduction to one blog post.”
That’s small enough that I can get it done in an hour or so. Then, when it’s done, one of two things will happen. Either I’m so motivated that I just keep writing (and finish the whole first draft) or I move on to another task.
The goal of the one task method isn’t to just do one thing every day. But by planning it this way, my small achievements motivate me to accomplish even more, while tricking my brain into thinking I’m doing less work.
What are the advantages of the one task method?
Multitasking causes more stress, which is really unfortunate considering how normal it is in the modern workplace. There’s just so much to do that multitasking feels like the only way to get any of it done.
Setting one task a day teaches you to prioritize, sorting through your massive to-do list to pluck out what needs to get done and what’s doable in a day. Not only is this a useful skill, but it can also do wonders for your mental health.
But beyond reducing stress, there’s another great reason to use the one task method. Your brain is lazy.
That’s not your fault; it’s a survival instinct. It just makes sense to accomplish tasks with the least amount of effort required. And while that’s great for picking berries and hunting deer, it doesn’t work so well in the modern office. In a work environment increasingly dominated by the knowledge economy, our tasks are becoming incredibly complex (and numerous). Keeping track of all that — and getting it done — requires a tremendous amount of effort.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why multitasking is so popular in the modern workplace. We’re fighting against our brain’s inherent penchant for laziness by piling things onto our plates and flicking back and forth between them throughout the workday. But multitasking is stressful, difficult, and can leave us feeling drained and less productive.
The one task method is a way to work with your nature rather than against it. You’re tricking your brain by appealing to its lazy side. You’re setting up a single task as your minimum amount of work for the day. Once you cross that threshold, you’ve had yourself a productive day. Stick to the one task method and you’ll never have as many open tabs again.