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Making a Case for Monotasking

Let’s think about the concept of productivity. A straightforward definition could be that it is the effectiveness of our efforts as measured by the output rate of successful results. Put simply: it means we’re getting stuff done and doing it well. Generally speaking, we can all get behind this as a solid strategy for tackling our daily tasks.

Now factor in the concept that if getting things done is good, why not get lots of things done simultaneously? This mindset is where we can quickly run into trouble, and that trouble goes by the name ‘multitasking.’ Another definition for you: Multitasking often means doing multiple things poorly at once. Multitasking is a highly relatable topic because most of us engage in the practice multiple times a day.

Why we multitask is simple; time is short, and our to-do list is long, and it gives us the psychological satisfaction of feeling like we are taking care of business on multiple fronts while making the most of our limited hours in the day.

Here’s the reality, though, only about 2% of the human population is actually able to multitask successfully, and the overwhelming majority of us see a decrease in performance and productivity when we are doing multiple things at once. That said, the fact that multitasking remains such a persistent habit is that each of us tends to believe we are in that 2% of people who can do a lot of stuff well simultaneously!

This deflating statistic is not new information, the studies of human attention and task execution have been going on for many years, and David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, is an expert in the field. David has been involved in multiple studies in the past decades that have enlisted thousands of participants to measure multitasking results. The data proves that attempting various things simultaneously shows deteriorating performance and outcomes across the board. One of those studies highlights the disastrous effects of multitasking while driving, which primarily involves cell phone use, whether talking or typing. Reaction times and situational awareness plummeted, and the results of sober but distracted drivers closely resembled those of intoxicated drivers.

Suppose we can come to grips with the fact that 98% of us actually decrease our productivity when multitasking. In that case, it’s a clear argument that we should focus on the benefits of monotasking. Put simply, focusing on completing one task at a time. Monotasking allows us to efficiently manage our priorities by eliminating task switching.

A quick note on task switching, the brain is not designed to do multiple complex tasks simultaneously, so when we think we are doing numerous things at the same time, like responding to an email, writing a report for work, and taking to our kids about a problem at school, we are going through a subconscious process of mental transition each time (Stop/Switch/Start/Focus) and each time we pull ourselves out of that ‘flow’ zone where we are starting to zero in on the one task for maximum performance results. As Peter Drucker wrote in his management classic “The Effective Executive”, the secret of people doing many things well is doing one thing at a time.

If you are interested in taking a new approach to managing your daily tasks and want to shift your approach to monotasking, below are some starting strategies to help you build your habits around task focus and sequential activities.

  1. Prioritize and plan: Have a daily list of what needs to be done and in what order. Each of those tasks should have a clear outcome of what a successful ‘mission complete’ looks like. Often, we procrastinate on higher-value to-do list items and concentrate on easier tasks which make us feel busy but end up giving us less value.

  2. Establish time blocks: Part of the appeal of multitasking is that it provides some variety for our limited attention spans; when we recognize that natural tendency, we can plan around our mental limits of concentration. For example, I have an (analog!) hourglass on my desk that I flip over and know that for the next 60 minutes, I’m focused on the task at hand without distractions. Speaking of which…

  3. Eliminate distractions: This part is mission critical as small distractions often end up causing us the largest detours from our planned tasks. Unless you expect an urgent call or email, leave your phone in a different room or, at minimum, on silent and face down so you’re not continuously drawn to check text messages, notifications, or emails during that task-focused block of time.

  4. Stick with it: Recognize this is likely a very different mindset and approach to what you have been doing and that new habits take a few months to take hold. Take notes and review weekly to assess your new system and evaluate what’s working well and what needs to be modified for improved results.

It’s worth mentioning that this approach isn’t related to only tasks on your to-do list. Often, we are mentally multitasking when we are having conversations with family or friends. Let’s face facts; it’s very easy to be distracted by non-priority thoughts when we would be much better off enjoying the moment we are currently in. When we build our mindfulness skills of being present in the present, we can enjoy the habit of being singularly focused on the most important thing at that time. Will that make you more productive? Absolutely. More importantly, it will elevate your everyday experiences in that you will be monotasking in the most significant way: progressing towards being the best version of yourself.

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