Take Back Your Time!: How to Start Unitasking in 8 Steps

The scattered piles of books and papers on my floor, across my desks, and on top of my dressers makes it clear that I have too many things going on at once. Because I can’t process all of it in an orderly fashion, this clutter is also transferred to my mind, which leads me to procrastinate or just give up.

I have a variety of interests and personal goals. I am involved in an active set of ministries at church, work full-time, do public speaking and freelance writing and above all, am a single parent of a little one, and I’ve started a new business I’m excited about. With all I’ve got going on in my life, and without giving priorities to my tasks and goals, everything becomes an overwhelming glob of to-dos. Something has got to give.

cluttered bulletin board
Courtesy of John Lawton

When crunch time comes along, we find out what the real priorities are in our lives. We’re all so busy, but busy doing what? Saying “Yes” to too many activities and too many people leaves no room for “me” time or family priorities, and we get worn out. Are ALL of our obligations really THAT important? Do we know when to say “No”?

Don’t have to wait until you “get around to it.” Decide now, from this day forward, that you will STOP MULTITASKING.


1. Multitasking wastes time because it slows you down.

Our minds can’t handle too many demanding things simultaneously. I’m not talking about combining little tasks such as running the washing machine while you watch TV or skim a magazine, or listening to an mp3 while you exercise. I’m talking about productive, cognitive tasks that require you to concentrate and process information, whether it be reading, writing, or driving. Think about it: you really can’t check your email and do your homework at the same time. You can have both in front of you while you take turns studying, and then take breaks to read emails. Switching back and forth between tasks is not efficient. You cannot truly multitask because your brain does not process information that way.


2. Too many distractions can cause fatal consequences.

A few months ago, I watched a repeat episode of an Oprah show from 2007 where Brenda Nesselroad-Slaby talked about how multitasking caused her to make a fatal mistake.

Normally Brenda’s husband took their baby daughter Cecilia to day care, but he had an early appointment one August morning, before the daycare opened. This also happened to be the first day of school, so they decided to switch roles. Brenda, an assistant principal, admitted that she was an overwhelmed mother of two, and in her haste to get everything ready for the hectic first day of school, she totally forgot about Cecilia in the back seat of her car. She went on with her day at school, until 8 hours later, when a teacher walked by Brenda’s car and noticed Cecilia still sitting in her car seat, dead from heatstroke.


3. Be fully present in the moment.

Brenda was in multitask mode, and her mind was likely in a million places—not to mention that she normally does not have her Cecilia in the car on the way to school.  It was an honest, but very tragic mistake. Brenda was not functioning fully present in the moment, fixated on more than one thing at a time. Her attention was divided, to say the least. So many others are dealing with their own real-life trauma of similar consequences because of texting and driving, or other risky multitasking routines.


4. Concentrate on one major task at a time.

Call it unitasking if you like. Practice giving tasks your undivided attention. Juggling tasks all day won’t allow you to put a big dent in your to-do list. Try heading off distractions and interruptions for a set period (say, 45 minutes at a time). Return all your emails or phone calls at a designated time of day (or maybe once in the morning and once in the afternoon).

Self-discipline is the key. You can train yourself to NOT check emails all day long. Checking email less frequently won’t change the rate at which they accumulate. In most cases, your colleagues can wait. Remember, everything is NOT urgent, despite what others lead you to think. Tame your compulsive habits.

5. Be unavailable.

I have yet to see a law that states you must answer every text, phone call, or email immediately. And you do not have to update your Twitter and Facebook status hourly. Really, it’s ok if we don’t know what you’re doing every second. With hundreds of “friends”/”followers”, who has time to care about mundane happenings? If you want to save time, limit your usage of social media during working hours.

My best friend has had a cell phone for years, but never uses it around her grandmother. She makes sure it’s turned off and out of sight, because she knows her grandmother would try to monopolize her time and ask her to do errands for her every day if she had that number. Likewise, my boyfriend “doesn’t like to be found,” so he doesn’t even own a cell phone.  He enjoys peace of mind.

Being inaccessible is a novel concept in today’s world, but it’s also a way to take back your sanity. Not everyone will let you relax and just “be”.  It’s not (always) about avoiding people or hiding from them. It’s about having your space, taking control of your time, and getting important things done. You don’t have to be a slave to technology, or let impatient colleagues or family members take over your life.

6. Prioritize your goals weekly, day-by-day.

I like the saying, “Plan the work, and work the plan.” Planning takes time up front but it saves so much time later, and it provides you with clarity so you can focus. Yes, things can come up unexpectedly, but you can build time into your schedule just for tackling truly urgent obligations that arise.  For example, in my calendar, I have “Wildcard Wednesdays,” meaning that I don’t plan any ongoing tasks on Wednesday (or another day of the week) so that I can easily shift things around to get important, unscheduled tasks done during the week.

You probably have more energy during certain times of the day than others.  Plan intensive work for your peak energy periods. I like to do certain unpleasant chores such as cleaning the bathroom, when I’m “in the mood” and can take advantage of my (short-lived) surge of energy. Music often gets me motivated to clean, and listening to the music doesn’t endanger me when I’m spraying and wiping down surfaces—it’s a safe multitasking project. 🙂

If possible, delegate mundane, administrative tasks, set them aside for a particular time of day, or demote the priority of the project.  If you have any control of your daily work schedule—even for one hour—tailor it to your advantage.

7.  Let it go.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re going to have to let go of some things before they consume you (and cause you to crack up).

It’s time for some introspection. Examine whether your personal projects fulfill you, or just wear you out. Which projects are you involved in that you wouldn’t miss if they ended today? Which projects cause you stress, and decrease your energy and morale?  Which projects bring you joy and personal satisfaction? If your heart is in something, keep it in your life, even if you need to take a hiatus and regroup.

Take an inventory of your life and see what you can do without. If you stopped going to a meetup every other week or serve on a committee, would that stunt one of your goals, or just give you some relief and breathing room to do other things that are more important? At work, we have obligations, but at home, you can pick and choose the things you do with your free time. Take back your time and reassess your commitments.

8. Decide now.

Procrastination is a huge time-stealer. When you put something off, you use  mental energy that could be better spent elsewhere. You weigh one task against others with different possibilities and perhaps feelings of fear, insecurity, or laziness (thereby pushing you to the decision to put off the task longer). It’s also a trade-off, take care of something now, or put it off and weigh your options later.

Recognize this: The act of not making a decision is still a decision—and it means you’ll have to revisit that same task or issue again, only it will be more of a pain when you re-examine the work it will take to start or finish it. If you always put off a task, and just thinking about it causes you to sigh heavily and feel frustrated, ask yourself if it’s something you can give up, or if you just need to reach out for help to take the next step. Maybe you need to stop and deal with that project or issue now, head on. Or maybe you just need to let go of it. Decide what to do now.

Reducing mental and physical clutter starts with that ever-flowing information stream that finds its way into your mailbox and your inbox.  Decide now to:

  • Manage your email subscriptions (unsubscribe or limit the frequency).
  • Limit the number of email accounts you use (determine the purpose of each one).
  • Limit the number of bank accounts and credit cards you use.
  • Cancel magazine subscriptions that you don’t read or need.
  • Use an online Billpay service (thereby reducing more mail clutter).
  • Opt-out of direct mail and catalogs you don’t use.
  • Detox from social media or limit your exposure if it distracts you

Celebrities and executives have assistants and other staff to help them run a fashion line, create a new record company, make music, model, host a TV show, perform in movies, and tour, but no one can do everything by themselves. To do so leads to grueling schedules, family relationships suffer, mental breakdown, suboptimal physical health. Your mind shuts down, and your energy decreases. Who needs it? I don’t have an assistant, and I know I can’t do it all.

To get the benefits and see results from unitasking, you have to acknowledge the things in your life that are weighing you down. Take some things off of your plate. Often, multitasking does not get more things done sooner; it just makes the most important things take longer to finish.  Starting from this day forward, decide to unitask.

You can accomplish more by doing less. Fewer commitments and clear priorities lead to focused intensity, more productivity, and better quality work/results. And instead of falling into bed tonight worrying about everything left to do tomorrow, you’ll feel like you got some important things done today… because you did.



4 thoughts on “Take Back Your Time!: How to Start Unitasking in 8 Steps

  1. great post daree! i’m the world’s worst procrastinator. i don’t care how many day planner’s, sticky notes, schedules, things-to-do-list i come up with… i still WON’T get it done until it’s crunch time.

    maybe i’ll save this post and revert back to it every now and again to light a small fire under my rump 🙂

    1. You’re not alone dear. I gave a speech about this earlier this year in my Toastmasters club and everyone was taking notes. Looks like I need to do it again because I have not yet implemented all of this :/

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