On the surface, the concept of multitasking sounds dynamic and kind of cool — the word originated in the 1960s computer boom, after all, and retains its connotations of hyper-competency and over-achievement. We’re all obviously capable of handling multiple tasks at once, and we have limited time in our busy lives, so we’ve been happy to accept the idea that multitasking is an efficient, way to navigate our lives.
That’s the perception. The reality is far different: It turns out multitasking is actually counter-productive, and even it’s name is a misnomer. The human brain can’t really focus on more than one project or task at a time, so what we’re actually doing when we juggle a dozen things at once is fast task switching. And studies have shown that when we switch from one task to another, we experience a measurable drop in productivity and performance. Multitasking might make you feel like you’re getting everything done, but it’s probably also producing mediocre results.
There’s a better way: Monotasking.
Monotasking is a better fit for how our brains work
Multitasking is actually a bit of an illusion. We actually do not — and cannot — focus on more than one thing at a time. Multitasking is simply switching our focus rapidly from one task to the next. Our brains are actually wired to focus deeply on one thing at a time, and following that natural inclination results in much better outcomes for individual tasks.
Simply put, monotasking is a better approach. When we monotask, we focus on one task until it’s finished (or until we reach a natural stopping point). Only then do we move on to the next task.
The benefits of monotasking involves a few simple concepts:
- Deep work. This entails spending significant time on tasks instead of diving in and out of them. For example, instead of writing that report in 20-minute increments while doing four other things, you set aside four hours to work on it uninterrupted. This allows your brain to get into an efficient focus that pays dividends in terms of the quality and efficiency of your work.
- Eliminating distractions. The brain is wired for monotasking, but it’s also wired for distraction. If you schedule four hours for that report but you leave your email, texts, and socials engaged, every time you hear an alert you’ll be pulled out of your task — essentially, you’ll be multitasking against your will. Effective monotasking requires eliminating these distractions so you can truly focus.
- Scheduling. Another aspect of your brain’s natural function is efficiency cycles. You’re probably already aware that there are periods of each day when you’re clear and focused, and periods when you’re drowsy and less engaged. Being aware of your own patterns of mental acuity is crucial when monotasking — there’s no point in scheduling four hours of report writing in the early hours of the morning when you know you’re not a “morning person” and never will be. Another aspect of this is your attention span — we all have one, and its duration varies. After a certain point you’ll naturally lose a bit of focus, and knowing when that happens is key. If you find that you consistently start daydreaming after half an hour, schedule your monotasking in half-hour increments.
Control your environment
A key aspect of monotasking is purposefully shaping your work environment. Whether it’s a home office, an office-office, or the local Starbucks, your goal is to reduce distractions and interruptions so you can enter what psychologists call a “flow state,” wherein your focus is so narrow all other concerns and interests temporarily vanish.
It’s nearly impossible to enter a flow state when multitasking, but when you’re focused on a single task it can supercharge your productivity.
Things to consider when planning a monotasking day:
- Turning off devices. It’s been demonstrated that being distracted by email or other notifications while you’re working on a task costs you about 20-25 minutes in terms of lost focus. Essentially, if you get distracted by notifications you’re being forced to multitask involuntarily. The easiest way to deal with this is to turn off your phone and other devices, or at least set them to Do Not Disturb.
- Preparing your space. Wherever you’ll be working, take steps to eliminate distractions and help you focus. Using apps and other tools that block internet intrusions or gently remind you to stay on task can help, as can turning off notifications in apps like Slack. Another tactic is to ensure you have everything you might need — coffee, snacks, water, all the tools you’ll be using during the session — so you have no excuse to stand up and walk away, breaking your concentration.
- Plan breaks. Monotasking doesn’t mean you have to grind through four hours on one task without any relief. Breaks are healthy and probably necessary — it’s not about staying focused for a specific period of time, it’s about staying on a single task for that period. Planned breaks aren’t distractions, they’re self-care. Use a system like the Pomodoro Technique to insert planned, specific breaks to help stay fresh. The key is to not use those breaks for other tasks (even checking your phone). Use them to stretch your legs, have a snack, or simply think and meditate a little. Then dive back into your task.