Single focus and peak performance

By Moneer Barazi 

In our modern hyper era many of us might feel tempted to handle multiple tasks at the same time. Doing more than one thing at a time might seem productive at first glance. However, research and experience show that it undermines productivity. Research from Project Management Institute shows that multitasking costs organizations globally US$450 billion in lost productivity each year. Research from the field of psychology also shows that you are more likely to make errors when you multitask.

One article from PsychologyToday clearly points out that when we think we may be multitasking, we are actually switching between multiple tasks back and forth. This is because our attention cannot be divided. While we may think we are focusing on two things at a time, we are not. One task will be the main task, and the other will be on auto pilot, depending on how skilled we are at it. Performance level in both tasks suffers dramatically especially if we are skilled at neither of them.

We may have competing demands, but prioritizing and working on one task, or one objective, at a time could be the best answer. Achieving our objectives with highest efficiency requires single focus for an adequate period of time on the task at hand and the required result.

Single focus (or monotasking) is the substitute for multitasking. Single focus means turning off all other distractors (including doors, phone calls, text messaging, and any non-relevant tabs on the computer). Turning off non relevant distractors makes us more likely to focus on the task at hand for long and thus reach a peak performance level – a level that cannot be reached by multitasking. 

This applies to mental tasks, such as reading, and physical tasks such as running as well since both require focus. 

Single focus improves performance on a task because plurality weakens focus. Focus must stay there for an adequate period of time to drive superior results. As shown in the graph below, considering reading as an example task, peak performance can be reached by reading one book for a period close to 2 hours (the numbers are hypothetical and for illustrational purposes only). Of course the time required to reach peak performance is not the same for everyone on the same task. Some require less time and some more. It very much depends on the individual. 

Having all said, multitasking still has its advantages. However, it is more efficient to multitask with less important tasks, where stakes are low, and where we really are not asking for superior results.


PMI, One-track mind:

Psychology Today, The True Cost of Multitasking: