Forget multitasking - it doesn’t work. The most effective time and task management often comes down to monotasking - doing one thing at a time. Many of us have realized the downsides of multitasking and moved toward monotasking without even realizing it. Are you ready to try a new - and proven - working style?
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What is Monotasking?
Once upon a time, multitasking was all the rage. As Americans became obsessed with efficiency and industriousness, everyone learned how to do more with every minute of their day. When computers came on the scene, people realized they could complete other tasks while a program ran in the background. Mothers entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers in the sixties and seventies, and all of the advice geared toward them was about multitasking - how to do more in less time. Books were written with tips like grouping tasks together where possible, or delegating certain things so that one could focus on other areas.
These days, we pretty much acknowledge that multitasking is a myth. In truth, multitasking is a great way to accomplish nothing at all. We have seen the error of our ways and most experts agree that focusing on one thing at a time is incredibly beneficial. You might do so without even realizing you are, and the practice is called monotasking.
As its prefix implies, the word monotasking means focusing on only one task at a time. You might also hear it referred to as single-tasking, but it essentially means that you’ll work on one specific thing until the task or goal is accomplished (or until you reach the end of a specified time). Monotasking is really the opposite of multitasking, which can increase anxiety and cause the release of stress hormones. Though you may get some instant gratification from switching back and forth between tasks, multitasking is actually a productivity killer. If you want to be truly effective in whatever tasks are important to you, you should try monotasking.
What are the Benefits of Monotasking?
It’s been proven time and again that multitasking is not ideal. Research from Stanford University proves that multitasking actually does more harm than good. According to their research, multitasking can not only interfere with working memory, causing people to perform worse at their tasks, it can cause problems with long-term memory storage too. Shifting between tasks also causes a loss of accuracy and speed. Many of the effects of multitasking are subtle, but important.
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On the other hand, monotasking introduces several advantages that need to be considered, whether you’re working on a big deadline at your company or trying to accomplish a home renovation project. The bottom line is that focusing on one specific area will help you to get things done more quickly and correctly. Additionally, monotasking helps with the following:
As mentioned, there is plenty of research out there regarding the trouble with focusing on too many things at once. Namely, studies show that when individuals multitask, their bodies release cortisol, known as the stress hormone. Why does that matter? Well, because stress is actually a productivity killer. Working under stress leaves you more prone to mistakes, or feeling discouraged and giving up. Part of working smarter (not just harder) is understanding the most effective ways of working, and focusing on one important task at a time will significantly lower stress levels.
As employees are encouraged to focus on one task at a time, eliminating distractions, productivity increases. At the same time, burnout and turnover decrease. In fact, The American Psychological Association found that doing more than one task at a time, or switching between tasks, reduces productivity by 40%. Similar research has shown that it takes longer to regain focus after switching to another task. Chances are, if you attempt to multitask, you’ll take longer to complete both items and will be in worse shape than if you had simply narrowed your focus to one area.
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It only makes sense that when you can dedicate your full attention to something, you’ll get better outcomes. Multitasking actually tends to negatively impact the quality of your work. Think about times that you are in the middle of something requiring a lot of thought, and you stop to respond to an email or answer the phone. When you get back to your original work, do you have the same brain-power? Or are you somewhat distracted? This is a recipe for mistakes and overlooking common errors. Focus on one thing at a time and ensure that you’re giving your best effort to that project.
Getting more fulfillment at work
Wouldn’t it be nice to be less stressed and enjoy work more? That can happen when you’re able to apply your full energy and thought processes to the task at hand. Worrying about other things you should be doing only leads to stress and distraction. Plus, always trying to multitask is a good way to drain your energy. When you know that you are only responsible for certain things at any given time, you can put more effort into them and get more enjoyment out of them. Monotasking is a good way to feel better in general about your work or personal endeavors.
One Thing at a Time: Tips for Monotasking
Multitasking is so ingrained in our daily lives that it can feel impossible to scale back. If making the most of every minute comes naturally to you, you may need to be intentional about learning to monotask. Here are some steps you can take to start monotasking - and getting more accomplished.
Start small, but intense
Monotasking is all about giving your full focus to the task at hand. It can take time to get your brain used to this form of working. We are so used to having several different things going on at once, not to mention that our devices are always on, distracting us with notifications and news feeds. Set a smaller goal to begin with. Research shows that 2 to 4 hours is the optimal window for productivity, but that might feel like a lot at first. Think about what your normal work day looks like and what a typical window is for working without distractions. Commit to working uninterrupted for that amount of time, and add 10 minutes to that window each day. If you know that you can normally work for 15 minutes without distractions, try to make it 25 minutes. These windows are ideal for employing the Pomodoro Technique, where a person works for 25 minutes and rests for 5, and then after 3 of those sessions takes a longer break. Set a timer for each work session and then take a break every time it goes off, and reward yourself with a longer break once you’ve gone through this cycle 3 times. As weeks go by and you accomplish your goals, add more time to each work session.
Divide and conquer
Once you have a baseline for the duration of work sessions, you need to prioritize to make sure you accomplish your goals within those timeframes. Start with the most important steps of larger goals, such as tasks that need to be done in order to move a project forward. Which of those tasks require deep focus? Plot that work for the part of your day where you feel most energized and productive. Some people are morning people, while others are night owls. As much as you can, work within your nature and plan your work around the windows when you’re most likely to concentrate. For tasks that don’t really drain you but still require some brain power, find other time slots throughout the day. These windows are perfect for responding to email or batching recurring tasks that go together, like pulling a report and creating a slide for a presentation. Additionally, there is a lot of research about whether to begin your day with a few simple tasks, or tackle your biggest issue first. On the one hand, completion bias can energize people and make them more likely to chip away at other tasks. However, there is some wisdom that says that completing your biggest/most important task right away will make the rest of your day more productive. There is no right answer. Really, what is best for you will depend on your own personality and working style. The important thing is to take note of your natural schedule and preference and then plan your day accordingly.
Plan for distractions
Which things cause the most distractions for you? Is it weekly check-ins on Slack, ongoing email notifications, or co-workers stopping by your desk? You can even consider things like deliveries, an ongoing text thread, or stopping to walk your dog. To what degree are you able to limit these distractions? Chances are there is more that you could be doing to reduce interruptions. For example, smart phones all come with a “do not disturb” setting which you can turn on. So do Slack and many of the other team-based apps. You can also set your “do not disturb” settings for certain blocks of time, allowing interruptions for certain things (for example, a call from your child’s school). During your most critical blocks of work time, you can set up automatic responses so that people reaching out understand that you’ll be getting back to them later in the day. Additionally, many people have a hard time ignoring notifications from their digital platforms. Even if they’re busy, they simply can’t look away from the little box that pops up on their phone or computer. Using a notification aggregator can be really valuable for this. Shift offers notification management that can apply across all the apps you use every day, from Outlook to Facebook to Slack and beyond. With a couple of clicks, you can mute all notifications temporarily or control the sounds that play when a notification comes through. Shift brings together all of the notifications from any of your apps and email accounts and displays them in one place. You don’t have to look in multiple places anymore just to see what new alerts you have. Instead, you can simply check the number that appears in the little red bubble on the Shift icon in your taskbar, and there you go! This is truly the easiest way to avoid overload from push notifications. Users save a ton of time that previously was wasted switching between apps and bouncing around from notification to notification. Not only that, you can even turn off notifications or remove the notification badge for particular apps within Shift if you don’t want to be alerted to things within that particular platform.
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Make time for “negative time”
Not every minute of your day needs to be accounted for. If you want to be successful at monotasking, then you need to leave room for “negative time” - time which is not dedicated to anything at all. During these times, you can ignore goals, plans, and tasks. The time is open and based on your need or desire at the moment. You can read a book, browse social media, walk your dog - whatever it is that you’d like to do. Though this time is unstructured, it should be reserved on your calendar. Plot these times during your day just like your work sessions, and mark them off when complete. Your resources should be protected and this unstructured time is just as important to your well-being and productivity as your other work time.
Improve your focus in real ways
Moving from multitasking to monotasking requires more than just a brain shift. There will also be cultural and boundary expectations that need to change. If you work with a team, you’ll probably need to make a few changes. Look at the tactical ways that you can improve your concentration and facilitate monotasking. For example, consider implementing meeting-free Fridays or Mondays. Having an entire day to dedicate to deep focus and important tasks is almost always a positive. Having everyone do it on the same day will help build this practice and get everyone flexing their monotasking muscles. You may also want to make a point of blocking off your calendar according to the work blocks you set up, so that meetings don’t get booked over your most productive times. You can encourage your team to do the same. Make a list of 3 tactics that you can employ to start monotasking more, and then set about checking them off.
The demands of modern life require a different skill set to manage. Monotasking is a key approach to being more productive. You can learn to focus on one task without interruption and experience a renewed sense of accomplishment. It might take a little time to get used to, but making a point of monotasking will pay off in long-term productivity (and improved mental health). For more tips and trends relating to all things work and productivity, make sure to follow our blog.