We’re all guilty of it, often unconsciously. Most of us have mastered the art of multitasking graciously in yearlong practice. This allows us to brag about how many things we can juggle at the same time. But is this really possible? Can we work on multiple tasks at a time? Since ages, multitasking was the number one asset every job recruiter was looking for. Now we come to understand that multitasking is actually bad. In this post, we’ll look at the reasons why you need to stop multitasking. Find out what multitasking is contrary to what you might have thought. At the end of this post, I’ll give you my most actionable tips on how you can become a pro at doing one thing at a time.
What is multitasking
Cal Newport says in his book Deep Work, “The ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done”. In other words, the better your focus on the task, the better your result. Monotasking is nothing else. You focus on one thing at a time to produce high-quality results.
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Cal Newport
The reason multitasking gets a bad reputation nowadays is that your focus is always divided between several things. To concentrate on the task in front of you, you need to eliminate all distractions. As the saying goes, you can’t be everywhere at the same time. You can’t answer emails on your phone while having a deep conversation with your friend. By doing two things at the same time you’re reducing the quality of your work.
While multitasking is generally known as doing multiple tasks at the same time, for the majority of our tasks this is impossible. The more complex the task the less we’re able to focus on something else. For example, you can’t read and write at the same time. Our brains are incapable of doing this. So if you’re reading something and you want to take a quick note, you have to stop reading.
In reality, multitasking is thus more like switching rapidly between several tasks.
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Why monotasking is the new multitasking
There are situations in which multitasking won’t influence the result of what you do. For example, you could listen to an audiobook while you clean the dishes. This won’t undermine your understanding of the story. But there are definitely more tasks for which you need your full focus. Following are the reasons why monotasking always wins over multitasking.
When you’re multitasking you might feel that you get a lot done but reality looks different. Switching between tasks makes you less productive. Your brain needs to adjust to the task at hand. You’re in writing mode while you’re writing an email. Then you go over to calculate an estimate for a client and your brain has to adapt to another mode. This only takes a couple of seconds but will sum up at the end of the day. Studies found that we lose up to 40% of our productivity by trying to multitask.
In the end, monotasking can help us to finish our work almost twice as fast. Impressive or not? Think about all the time you could save by changing your habits and adopting monotasking.
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Not only our productivity decreases but also the quality of our work. Why is this so? This becomes quite clear when you think about how much brainpower it costs you to switch from one task to another. You lose your focus and start making mistakes. Your brain can’t pay it’s full attention to so many different tasks.
On the other hand, when you only need to focus on the task ahead you can give 100%. There are fewer mistakes, you don’t have to repeat tasks, you can pay more attention to details, and in the end, you’ll finish quicker.
Reduced productivity and quality are a result of less focus. Even with tasks that we enjoy doing or which come easy to us, it takes some time to get into the flow. Flow is a state of hyper-focus in which your brain works best and reaches the best results. All this jumping between tasks never gives us the time to reach the state of flow.
When you give your full attention and focus to one single thing at a time though, the result will naturally be better. On top of that, you’ll be less exhausted than when switching between tasks.
With all this going back and forth between tasks, you’re apt to feel overwhelmed and lose track. Coming back to an unfinished task, you might have forgotten where you left off. It’ll take time to get back into it. You might often ask yourself at which point you were anyway and what’s the next task on your list. This leads us to forget our priorities and the reason why we’re working on a task.
Choosing to focus on a single task and setting aside the time for this task means we’re more mindful of the things we do.
Time is often what we’re lacking and why we choose to squeeze in so many tasks. As we’ve learned above, multitasking costs us more time in the end. The time you spend switching between tasks and eliminating the mistakes you make when you try to focus on multiple things, quickly sums up.
When we want to save time monotasking wins by far over multitasking.
It’s very shocking to see at which point multitasking negatively influences our work. But that’s not all. Some studies show that frequent multitasking can impact our brain health. Participants in this study were tested after heavy multitasking sessions. Their IQ score lowered by 15 points, which is a similar result to when you stay up all night.
Even if these studies don’t take into account the long term risks of multitasking, you might already feel the negative impact yourself. Multitasking increases stress and can even push us into burnout. For your health and wellbeing, you should try to avoid it as much as you can.
“It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way.” Dr. Rollo May
How to practice monotasking
Since we’re so used to multitasking, it’s hard to stop it. Nevertheless, the advantages of monotasking might have convinced you to give it a try. Below are some practices which make monotasking easier.
Cut out distractions and focus on one task
Get rid of all distractions before you start working on your task. Put your phone away or at least on ‘do not disturb’. Create an interruption-free atmosphere by closing the door to your office. Let people know to not interrupt you. Prepare yourself by getting out tools and notebooks; everything you need. Close your inbox and all the apps you won’t need for the task. Essentially, what you’re doing is eliminating the possibilities to multitask so you can focus on the one thing in front of you.
Batch similar tasks
Batching is a montasker’s best friend. If you’re not familiar with batching, it means grouping similar tasks together to work on them in one sitting (batch). Batching helps you avoid switching continuously between different tasks. In reality, this could mean writing several blog posts in one batch. Then switching to creating graphics for all these posts. The more you batch the less you’re tempted to multitask.
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Block your time
Batching goes hand in hand with time-blocking. With time-blocking, you schedule every batch of work at a specific time in your day. This helps you to be more realistic with your time and don’t overschedule yourself. It also helps you to stick to one task at a time.
Avoid multitasking by making smaller to-do lists
To create a to-do list to enforce monotasking we have to set our priorities and be mindful of our time. Not everything is equally important. Let’s be honest, sometimes we put 25 things on our list in the morning and we already know that it’s impossible to finish. This behavior pushes us into multitasking if we want to or not.
Try to restrict your list to 3 items. These should be your top priorities for the day.
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What do you think? Is multitasking a vice or virtue? Let me know in the comments below.
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