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It’s hard, right? And not because of the wacky pattern, but because who can focus on one thing at a time these days? ARETHA LOH explains why uni-tasking is the next big thing – and how to master it.

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It’s hard, right? And not because of the wacky pattern, but because who can focus on one thing at a time these days? ARETHA LOH explains why uni-tasking is the next big thing – and how to master it.

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How long can you concentrate on something without looking at your phone? It’s about 10 minutes for me.

Increasingly, one of the marks of being human is having the ability to juggle multiple actions simultaneously. The term “multi-tasking” first came from the field of computer engineering, where it referred to a machine’s ability to process multiple tasks at the same time. Since then, the term has sunk into our psyches, causing us to feel inferior if we can’t manage more than one thing at once.

Indeed, thanks to the proliferation of tech gadgets (smartphones, tablets, Apple watches, Google glasses), we’ve morphed into manage-everything machines ourselves.

It has become part of everyday life to check e-mail on the go, Whatsapp while stuck at traffic lights, and gorge on Buzzfeed articles when going through a sluggish workday.

According to a 2014 Toluna survey*, we’ve become tech addicts. The research found that Singaporeans are “always on” their devices, with 73 per cent of respondents confessing that they tend to use two devices at once. It also found that 82 per cent of us check our phones 15 minutes before getting out of and going to bed.

What’s scarier is, we don’t even try to conceal that we’re splitting our attention so many ways – a sign that we’ve grown accustomed to it. In Ikea’s 2015 Life at Home survey**, 83 per cent of Singaporeans admitted to using their phones during mealtimes, even though 50 per cent found it annoying.

If you can identify with these behaviours, you’re not alone. And you may need to follow the latest trend – uni-tasking, simply doing one thing at once.

Can we really juggle, anyway?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang mentions in his book The Distraction Addiction that: “This kind of multitasking – where separate activities don’t add up to a single grand intellectual challenge – scientists will tell you, isn’t actually multi-tasking.”

Alex, who’s also a senior consultant at Strategic Business Insights (a Silicon Valley think tank), instead refers to this practice as “switch-tasking”. This is when your brain is “toggling between different activities, constantly redirecting its focus, tearing away from one task to deal with another”.

The real worry here is whether anyone can actually complete a task if they’re splitting their attention in multiple directions, says Glenn Graves, psychotherapist at Counseling Perspective in Singapore.

Try this experiment by Megan Jones, a psychologist from the University of California, Berkeley: Time yourself counting from one to 10 as quickly as you can. Next, recite the alphabet from A to J, and see how long you take. Now, alternate the numbers with the alphabet (1, a, 2, b, 3, c). A whole new challenge, right?

In real life, this would be you trying to finish your sales report while replying to three Whatsapp group chats, or you scrolling through Instagram during a client presentation. “We think we’re being productive by juggling multiple things at once, but we’re not. We’re also more likely to make mistakes, as we’re not focused on the result of one task,” says Glenn. He adds that multi-tasking also makes us less creative because great ideas usually emerge in the breaks between intense concentration.

The art of uni-tasking

Here’s the good news. It is possible to train yourself to be a uni-tasker. “The key is to rewire your brain to focus on one thing at a time. This concerns staying present in the moment,” says Glenn, who suggests:

• Make a list of duties. Start with the most urgent one, or the one that’s the most challenging.

• Schedule specific times for each task and allocate a set amount of time for each one.

• Keep your workspace as tidy as possible and free of unnecessary distractions. You don’t want your eyes roaming over to-do lists while you’re supposed to be planning a business proposal.

• Turn off all social-media notifications. This may include switching off your phone if you’re able to.

• Stay mindful of what you’re doing. You know that you’re procrastinating if you’re busy with everything except the important task at hand!

Stop Whatsapping, let’s talk

Uni-tasking also applies to your interactions with others, and yourself. Being fully present allows us to engage, by reclaiming our solitude or reconnecting with people.

“Everyone knows a television in the bedroom can kill your sex life, and the same goes for your gadgets,” Glenn confirms. “My clients often complain that their partner is addicted to tech, and they feel abandoned because of it,” he shares. Get back on track by:

• Maintaining eye contact with the person you’re talking to.

• Addressing each point your best friend/partner/colleague makes with a comment or feedback. • Keeping your phone out of reach during a conversation, so you won’t feel tempted to look at it.

• Finishing the conversation before looking at your gadgets.

Glenn recommends rewarding yourself when you uni-task, and using negative reinforcement when you don’t. For instance, get your partner to give you a massage if you get through dinner without checking Instagram. For negative reinforcement, agree that the first friend to get caught online shopping on a girls’ night out has to buy the next round of drinks – and do so while attempting nothing else!

Go to “Settings”, choose “Manual” on your iPhone and activate “Do Not Disturb”.

*The omnibus study asked 1,000 respondents in the US, UK, Germany, France and Australia, and 500 respondents in Singapore, for their opinions about device usage and Internet access.

**Ikea surveyed 1,271 households in Singapore between May 27 and June 3, 2015, as part of a larger survey of eight cities. Respondents were aged 16-80. It was the fist time the survey was carried out here.

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