Monotasking Is The New Multitasking

How can you get anything done when your "tasks" turn into competing preoccupations? In this age of distraction, it's all about monotasking. Here are six tips for doing it right.

We all know multitasking is inefficient. A classic 2007 study of Microsoft workers found that when they responded to email or instant messaging alerts, it took them, on average, nearly 10 minutes to deal with their inboxes or messages, and another 10-15 minutes to really get back into their original tasks. That means that a mere three distractions per hour can preclude you from getting anything else done.

Then there’s the relationship “inefficiency” that comes from multitasking. You can spend hours rebuilding the good will torched by a single glance at your phone during an inopportune time.

We know this, yet we keep doing it. I checked my inbox after writing the opening paragraphs of this piece (nothing but press releases, alas). As Carson Tate, a productivity consultant and founder of Working Simply, puts it, “We’ve reprogrammed ourselves that that bright shiny object--whatever flashes next--is probably more interesting than what we’re doing.”

No human activity is immune. Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, reports that he recently went out to dinner without his phone. “I went to the bathroom and thought, what am I supposed to do in here?” Even the time spent walking from the table to the bathroom felt like it should have been filled: “We no longer have a moment of silence or pause.”

Fortunately, there are ways to learn to focus. “We’re all capable of monotasking, it’s just that we choose not to,” says Bregman. Here’s how to choose differently:

Live right

There are many reasons to exercise, hydrate, and get enough sleep--and the ability to fight distractions is one of them. Several studies have found that exercise improves brain function and focus. A study published in early 2012 in the Journal of Nutrition found that women who were mildly dehydrated were less able to concentrate on cognitive tests. A lack of sleep is also associated with inability to focus, as anyone who’s tried to work on a difficult project after being up all night with a screaming baby can attest.

Tie yourself to the mast

To resist the original siren song, Odysseus bound himself to his ship so he couldn’t pursue these tempting creatures. Likewise, if your smartphone is the major source of your multitasking habit, you can just leave it at home. Says Bregman: “It’s much more effective to create an environment that predisposes you to do the things you do want to do or don’t want to do than to use willpower.” Willpower, for the most part, doesn’t work. To be sure, you probably have good reasons to carry a phone, but keep in mind that parents left their kids with babysitters before cell phones existed, and businesses grew and thrived before their invention as well.

Play offense

If you’re deeply absorbed in a difficult but doable project--in a state termed as “flow” by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi--other tasks are naturally less interesting. Try to spend as much time as possible in this state.

Don’t tolerate boredom

Bregman once spent a week consciously avoiding multitasking. “What I found is that I had much less tolerance for wasting my time,” he says. If stuck in a boring meeting, normally he’d check email. Without the ability to multitask, “suddenly one-hour meetings were turning into 30-minute meetings because I didn’t have the tolerance for sitting around doing nothing.” Put your commitments through the wringer of focus. If you couldn’t do anything else during that time, would it still be worth it? If not, maybe you shouldn’t do it.

Plan

Another major culprit in multitasking is that we don’t have clarity on what we should be doing at any given time. Tate recommends asking, “Where do you add value to your company, and how close to the revenue line is my daily work?” With those questions in mind, decide on your most important tasks for a day, then look at your schedule and see where you can do these tasks. That way, when one meeting ends, you know what you need to get done before the next one--and you’ll be more disciplined about focusing until finished.

Accept your limits

If you can honestly pay attention to something for just 15 minutes, then divide all projects into 15-minute tasks. Do one, then switch over to another. If you work somewhere defined by constant email contact, try serial monotasking. You’re probably allowed to go to the bathroom or grab a coffee, which means it’s okay to be unconnected for 20-30 minutes. Try going offline for 30 minutes, then checking email for 30. Repeat, until what you intend to do is done.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Hurley]

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17 Comments

  • Amy Gill

    Great message Laura. Thanks for writing this article. The term 'multitasking' originated in the computer industry referring to the ability of a microprocessor to process several tasks simultaneously. The term first appeared in a white paper by IBM circa ~ 1965.  Funny that the term was born from technology and technology continues to drive humans toward more and more multitasking.

  • Autumn

    I work at a web developing company (Exceleron Designs @ excelerondesigns.com ) and am constantly multi-tasking. I can understand some of the points of this article, but personally feel the most success when I accomplish big projects. It takes many small details to make a big project work and sometimes deadlines force us to do these in small amounts of time. Maybe I'm just competitive but as I stand, I feel satisfied with the way I work. I think the "stress" causes me to focus more on my tasks and get it done in an effective manner.

  • Hashim Warren

    Laura, I find most of my big insights and creative breakthroughs through serendipity. How do you multitask and allow for interruptions that could lead to better work?

    #mavenwork

  • Toby Tremayne

    Completely agree with this - as a coder and a writer, there's nothing that makes me more productive and even more relaxed generally than getting into the zone and spending a day there. It's modern day mindfulness.

  • Barish Golland

    Very helpful article in breaking down monotasking. I am using the
    FocusTime app (yes it's on a smartphone) but it keeps me incredibly
    focused in 25 minute segments, with 5 minute breaks in between - also
    known as the Pomodoro Technique. 

  • Aarnold

    Great article. I managed to avoid clicking on the crowdfunding vid with 3 bikini clad young ladies that ran next to it.

    Barely...

    Bob

  • Paula Hynes

    Excellent article.  Technology has its time and place.  We need to be able to walk away and focus.

  • Elle

    Good points.  But how sad is it when we have to invent something new like "monotasking" to represent what used to be plain old focus.....

  • Mmbg1234

    Laura, great article! Small correctionv- Peter Bregman did not write "Getting Things Done." It was written by David Allen.

  • Lvanderkam

     I know - I love David Allen's work! The second half of Bregman's subtitle is Getting the Right Things Done, and in the original version of this piece, it didn't get highlighted with the link. It's corrected now. Thanks!

  • Jessica Robinson

    I just had one of those moments where someone explains something that you do all the time but never really talk about it. 

    Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, reports that he recently went out to dinner without his phone. “I went to the bathroom and thought, what am I supposed to do in here?” Even the time spent walking from the table to the bathroom felt like it should have been filled: “We no longer have a moment of silence or pause.”

    This is me and I feel I've been discovered!

  • cind

    Great bringing our attention to this! I confess:
    Between each paragraph, I multitasked...allowing me to digest each point before going on to the next. Before multitasking, I might have continued to read while processing the last point, having to reread again. And my mind works fast...

    Essentially you are right. Daniel Pink suggests in  A Whole New Mind to take a 'sabbath' once a week from tech + media. Then you get to do life without multitasking. And it works.

  • Stuart Yasutake

    @Laura Vanderkam - Thank you.  As I have just been juggling some major projects at work.  I actually had a freak accident yesterday that has put me in crutches for 5 days.  Usually I would be at the gym before work . . .  But instead I have been given clarity through your writing and will share it with my friends and co-workers.  Keep doing good - 

  • Lvanderkam

     @Stuart - I am sorry to hear about your accident, and that it's keeping you from the gym, but I appreciate your taking the time to read my article instead!

  • DS Wadeson

    tl;dr? I'm reading three other articles on my phone, a magazine and another monitor whilst I read/type this?