For so long, the concept of juggling many tasks at once was a resume-worthy skill. In a way, the more balls you could keep in the air without seemingly faltering, the more adept you appeared to friends, colleagues and superiors.
Recently, though — and perhaps fast-tracked by the pandemic — conversations about “hustle culture” and multitasking ourselves into a tizzy have gained momentum. What’s more, research tells us that multitasking can actually make us less productive, and that “monotasking” is much better for our health and productivity.
The trouble with multitasking
Simply put, multitasking is when we attempt to do more than one thing at a time. The problem is that our brains aren’t wired to tackle tasks this way.
All that 'task switching' comes at a cost. It overloads our brains and causes a significant amount of stress.
“What we’re actually doing when we try to multitask is ‘task switching,’” said Thatcher Wine, author of "The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better." "All that task switching comes at a cost. It overloads our brains and causes a significant amount of stress. [Additionally], studies have shown that tasks take longer and we make more mistakes than if we had done one thing at a time.”
For example, answering emails or texting while on Zoom can cause us to miss important details from a meeting or lead to unclear communications. This might even lead to more time spent later trying to clarify, understand or correct. Even switching back and forth from one task to another can create cognitive fatigue, causing us to become more burnt out and less productive over the course of the day.
In some cases, multitasking can impact important relationships. For instance, watching TV during a family dinner or scrolling through social media when out with a friend causes us to miss out on prime opportunities to connect with loved ones.
“We only have so much time to spend paying attention to anything in a given day,” said Dr. David Rabin, PhD, a neuroscientist, board-certified psychiatrist and founder of Apollo Neuroscience. “If we spend that precious time paying attention to things that aren’t serving us — such as distractions — then we are limiting the amount of time we have left to spend paying attention to things that we are actually trying to get done and the things that are serving us.”
Some signs that multitasking is working against you:
- You struggle to pay attention to the task at hand.
- You’re susceptible to distractions.
- You frequently make mistakes or misunderstand an assignment.
- You feel burnt out, especially as the day goes on.
- You often forget details from interactions.
- Your interactions with others don’t feel as meaningful.
- Others sometimes ask for your attention.
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How to become a skilled monotasker
We’re not born knowing how to concentrate. Being able to focus attentively is a learned skill that improves the more we practice.
“Monotasking is all about doing one thing at a time with your full attention, completing the task, then moving on to something else,” says Wine. “The key is that you bring your attention to one thing — such as a conversation, a task for your work or even your exercise or commute — and resist the urge to switch back and forth with other tasks.”
Doing this might feel a bit foreign at first, especially if you’re a chronic multitasker. Be gentle on yourself, as it takes time to hone the craft. A prime example is a surgeon, who needs to stay completely focused for many hours. Many likely aren’t able to achieve this level of deep focus at first, but with time it becomes more natural.
Ways to improve your focus:
- Turn phone notifications off or put your plane in airplane mode.
- Keep your phone in another room or in your bag when spending time with others.
- Close your email window.
- Change your Slack status to “focusing” and pause notifications.
- Schedule time for deep focus (put it on your calendar, if necessary).
- Set a time limit for how long you want to focus on a task and work through the set period of time.
- Identify other common distractions and remove/mitigate them as best as you can.
Some additional ways you can exercise your monotasking muscle is through meditation and mindfulness, yoga practice and intentional deep breathing. Remember, the more you monotask, the better you’ll be able to resist distractions and apply your focus to the tasks, conversations, and people that deserve your attention.