When was the last time you got through a movie without checking your phone? Working on a work project without catching up on emails? We’ve grown up with the idea that efficiently multitasking is the peak of productivity, however, many studies are now revealing that it may be what’s hurting our productiveness. Humans are not designed to handle numerous tasks at the same time. Even the term ‘multitasking’ was first popularized in the 60s — not to describe human activities, but to describe the function of computers. As we stray away from heavy duty multitasking, we are seeing the term ‘monotasking’ become used more frequently. This way of individualizing your tasks is shown to increase the success of your work while also reducing the stress and frustration of being busy yet not getting anything done.
Monotasking vs Multitasking
With so many of us having a laundry list of things to do every day, we’ve become habituated to dividing our attention into several tasks at once. Although it may feel like it, this juggling of activities isn’t your brain doing multiple things simultaneously. ‘Multitasking’ is actually your brain ‘task-switching’ rapidly, sometimes in just a few tenths of a second, and these quick switches can decrease productivity to up to 40%. Studies showed that interruptions as short as 2-3 seconds add cognitive stress and are enough to double the number of errors in a given task. Our brains are said to have a finite number of daily neural resources that are reduced every time a task-switching event occurs — resulting in more mistakes and the burnt-out, exhausted feeling we experience at the end of the day.
Monotasking, on the other hand, is now considered to be the new pinnacle of personal and professional productivity. This involves the acknowledgment that there are many things to be done, but still choosing to give a single task your undivided attention and efforts, completing it, and only then moving on to the next task. Making measurable progress can reduce overwork and make your day feel more pleasurable and rewarding — especially when the quality of your work reflects your best capabilities.
This concept of single-tasking is so simple yet is more difficult than it seems when our phones are constantly pinging and there are always emails to respond to. After a lifetime of multitasking, our monotasking muscles have considerably atrophied and we must exercise them regularly to utilize this skill again. Below are a few tips on how to improve your focus and limit distractions.
How to Start Monotasking
Rather than thinking about the importance of a task and getting intimidated by all the work you have to do, the key to monotasking is proper time management and blocking distractions that prevent you from completing your work.
Build out your day so that specific time blocks are dedicated to a single project while assuring yourself that other tasks will be completed later in the day. If you have a bigger assignment to work on, reserve 2-4 hours a day for this task which will engage higher levels of cognitive ability that you cannot access in short bursts. During work time, shut down all distractions: email, phone notifications, tabs relating to other tasks, etc., and also try to prevent your mind from wandering as well.
To practice and strengthen your attention retention, read an article or book for 20-30 minutes per day to bring your visual and cognitive focus to a singular focal point. Additionally, the next time you’re in a
conversation with someone, try to fully engage in their story without letting your thoughts stray from the topic. Not only will this strengthen your relationships, but it’ll also allow you to observe your ability to pay attention and listen with patience without interruption.
Leave Time for Rest
With mountains of work and the conflicts of our personal lives on top, simplifying our tasks and trying to ignore everything else is definitely easier said than done. However, feeling high levels of mental overload means that taking away these cognitive stressors is more important than ever. This is not limited to our work lives. We often tend to continue thinking about our work and personal errands even in times of rest — meaning that our downtime isn’t truly recharging us like it should. As an additional exercise to practice your monotasking, try thinking of literally nothing other than rest the next moment you have time off. Not only will this help you decompress, it’ll improve your mental state and energy levels to raise your productivity and quality of work for the time you have to focus.