Down with multi, up with mono...tasking.
As a near-millennial (born in ‘86), I grew up with the understanding that multitasking was key to improving productivity.
This trait, of course, was empowered by the explosive growth and adoption of the internet. Faced with the unlikely task of quelling the constant stream of digital stimulus, the thinking was that it’d be best to learn and grow our ability to multitask. As it turns out, for most of us, multitasking simply doesn’t work.
Faced with that reality, most people don’t know how to change. In 2017, the idea that we’re always online has become entrenched in our society. I haven’t worked with an organization where e-mails weren’t sent directly to my phone, and I don’t know many people who can say otherwise, either.
Where multitasking falls short
Focus is an interesting thing, and so is our perpetual lack of it. How many meetings do you attend where cell phones are left openly on the boardroom table? How many times have stakeholders involved in said meeting been focused on their phones instead of the conversation at hand?
In my experiences working with marketing agencies, it’s not only common to see phones displayed on the boardroom table but actually expected in 2017 (even though this fact annihilates the productivity of the meetings we attend.)
Not everyone can juggle
Here’s the thing: a Forbes article published in February 2017 referenced this study that found that, when people begin to multitask, productivity drops by as much as 40 percent. That isn’t to say that you can’t improve your ability to multitask, but I believe that the impacts demonstrated by that study aren’t isolated.
In fact, I know they’re not. Many notable and peer-reviewed studies reinforce the idea that humans just aren’t good at doing more than one complex thing at a time.
A complex task is a task that requires your engagement to complete. This can include something as simple as reading or ordering from a restaurant menu, or perhaps something that we intuitively understand to be complex (such as solving a math program, writing an article for publication or installing new parts in your vehicle.)
The human mind is actually quite adapted to solving complex problems. If we think back to our evolutionary roots, we spent a lot of time problem solving in order to stay alive; everything from the food we ate to the dwellings we lived in required considerable effort on our part to produce.
However, it’s generally agreed that the human mind is best at solving a single complex problem at a time. This is why you likely find it difficult to read while listening to music, as your brain is really only effective at properly interpreting and understanding a single source of information.
Your brain is programmed to filter out distractions
The part of your brain responsible for executing on tasks is called the executive system. This system directs our attention towards the tasks we need to complete, and handles everything from simple tasks (such as looking at a picture) to complex tasks (such as trying to track the position of an object while it is moved or manipulated).
During complex tasks, the executive system in the brain actively filters out distractions. This is why you will find it difficult to listen to music while you’re reading, or to read while you’re listening to music; your brain is quite literally trying to actively ignore one of the inputs.
Knowing that we are hardwired to be more effective when focusing on a single thing, does multitasking make a lot of sense when we need to be productive?
I think not.
I’ve replaced multitasking with monotasking
My wife, Melissa, came home from a job interview once that forever changed how I approach my workflow. When I asked her how her interview went, she replied that it went well but seemed like more of a discussion about workflow than about her viability as a candidate. When I asked her to explain, she told me that at least half of the interview was her listening to the interviewer extol the virtues of monotasking.
What is monotasking?
If we eliminate multitasking and instead focus on a single task, that’s monotasking. It isn’t some type of complex process; rather, it is the absence of multiple complex processes.
In other words, monotasking is about doing one thing at a time. This brief Ted Talk by Paolo Cardini does a good job showcasing its virtues; and while writing this article, I had to watch it three times, as whenever I started writing I stopped listening -- who’d have thought?
For easily distracted people like me, switching gears from multi to mono can make a huge difference in productivity, stress and job satisfaction.
My productivity increased
My first foray into the world of monotasking was about eight months ago, when I took my first steps in modifying my processes:
- I created defined times during the day to check and respond to e-mails
- I stopped being active on social media while I work (to the point where I installed software that blocks out certain sites during business hours)
- I stopped responding to every instant message, text message and query until I had completed my scheduled task.
In doing these things, which sound simple on paper but proved to be challenging to implement (and stick to), I noticed that not only did I get more done, but the quality of my work improved; and I was happier about the work I was doing, too.
The quality of my work has improved
I’ve always prided myself on producing a consistent quality of work. Whether it’s creating SEO audits for my clients, large content documents for website builds or workflow schedules for my team, I always made sure to put in the due time and effort needed to create a result I’m proud to put my name on.
Rarely have I felt that I delivered sub-standard work; and where gaps in my work were identified, I’ve always acted quickly to remedy them.
Switching to monotasking, though, changed the game
- It now takes me less time to produce the same result - an article that may have taken me three our four hours to write consistently takes me under two now that I’ve adopted mono
- Work requires fewer edits and oversight, as my increased focus on it allows me to better catch and polish the details
- Work feels less overwhelming, allowing me to do more while seemingly taking on less
I became more satisfied in my job
In addition to producing better quality work, I also feel better today about the work that I do.
As a digital marketer and small business owner, I often juggle multiple deadlines and tracks of work. To say that my schedule fills quickly is an understatement, and the digital world is one where when something is needed, it’s needed now. In a multitasking world, the result of these realities was the perpetual sensation that I was drowning.
By moving to a monotasking model for my workflow, I no longer feel like I’m forever sinking. In fact, each time I successfully complete a task in the time allotted (and to the quality standards needed), I feel a distinct sense of satisfaction and accomplishment; and that makes me feel great about what I’m doing.
I’m on board the monotasking train, and I hope you’ll join me
In this article, I’ve linked out to a lot of studies and articles that reinforce my position that multitasking is not an efficient way to work. If you aren’t quite on board with my line of thinking, I encourage you to read the studies and come to your own conclusions.
I’m confident that when you give monotasking a fair shake, you’ll see improvements in your workflow and job satisfaction not unlike what I’ve experienced in mine.
Photo credit: Shutterstock / puhhha