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Single-tasking in a Multi-tasking World

danieluhl profile image Typing Turtle ・3 min read


Single-tasking is the concentrated planning and effort to allow focus on only one thing at a time. This document outlines a strategy for planning to allow for single-tasking throughout the day.
List Top Priorities

Consolidate, deprecate, and reprioritize daily. Categorize and note dependencies between items.

Categories of Work and Activity

My todo app (things 3) has the concept of "Areas" and "Projects". I have the categories below as Areas and specific projects under each.

Project Work

Project work is any work that has measurable results. Large initiatives should be broken down into projects. Projects should encompass many tasks. For single-tasking, it’s best to limit the number of concurrent projects to one per day and three per week. (todo: try and refine this number)

Projects should have an associated project plan. Note which projects you’ll need to make progress on despite never likely getting top priority.

Many tasks that seem like one-off tasks often roll up into a larger project plan, I call these “fragments”. Think laterally and creatively about what high level project fragments might fit under.


Upkeep is work that will never make top priority but needs to get done anyway. Usually upkeep takes the form of a project, but not always.

Book time for upkeep at a regular cadence so that progress is made. Be careful to not have too much upkeep as it will eat into your top priority work. Too much upkeep is a sign of some cruft or debt that need to be paid down or delegated.

Meta Work

Important prep and planning associated with project work. For example:

  • Daily prioritization of activities
  • Daily booking of time for projects
  • Creating a project plan
  • Refining a project plan
  • Loose threads (things to clean up during the next day planning)

Book out the Day

Single-tasking is carving out time to do only one thing at a time. This is often made easier by intentionally booking blocks of uninterrupted time on the calendar.

  • Daily morning prioritization
    • Pick a project for the day
    • Look through upkeep items and pick tasks to complete for the day
  • Daily evening clean-up time (see below)
  • Blocks of time for dedicated project work

Note: it’s important to avoid cognitive load between tasks, meetings, or activities. Take a break to breathe, move, or embrace boredom in those gaps.

Allowed Interruptions

Sometimes interruptions must be dealt with. This list should be carefully curated and adhered to. Single-tasking requires strong focus and removal of any unnecessary temptations for interruptions. Any distractions that don’t make this list should be made as inaccessible as possible (e.g. close the facebook tab and keep your phone in another room)

  • Slack alerts
  • Meeting notifications

Clean-up Time

Take some time to tidy-up and leave breadcrumbs for your future-self.

  • Clean your physical workspace
  • Update your progress on items
  • List loose threads that will need prioritization or planning tomorrow morning (don’t do any planning now)

Background and Philosophy

Single-tasking is difficult in an increasingly multi-tasking world that is full of interruptions. Your tidy plan at the beginning of the day will likely be obliterated by incoming interruptions, shifting priorities, failure to avoid distraction, and unexpected time-sinks. Take a deep breath, this is normal and will get better over time. The effort you give here is worth your time, thought, and energy.

Related Reading

  • The Value of Attention
  • The Value of Boredom


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