The productive power of monotasking

Multitasking is outdated. These days, doing less is more. We ask an expert about ‘monotasking’ and the benefits of learning to focus on one thing at a time.

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writer

Staff writer

The concept of ‘multitasking’ was flawed from the start. The term wasn’t even devised for human behaviour: it was thought up in the 1960s by engineers at IBM who needed a word for a computer’s ability to execute multiple actions at once.

And while we often find ourselves in situations – at work, in parenthood – where we’re told that being able to do lots of things at once makes us more capable, more efficient, and more skilled, our brains aren’t built for it. When we toggle between tasks, the brain toggles its focus power too, meaning we can ironically wind up taking longer, accomplishing less, and making more mistakes than if we gave our full attention to one activity at a time.

Multitasking: more is less

“People really can’t multitask effectively,” says Craig Speelman, professor of psychology at Edith Cowan University and director of the Cognition Research Group. “They can try – and kid themselves. We just cannot devote that much attention to two tasks at the same time.”

One study in 2016 even found that a two- or three-second interruption of one task with another can double your mistakes. “In psychology, we call it our ‘working memory capacity’,” Craig says. “Essentially, it’s how many items of information we can hold in our head at one time. As you try to cram things in, some things start to fall out.”

A 2009 Stanford study concluded that people who juggle lots of tasks at once are less able to pay attention and can’t switch from one task to another as easily as those who do one thing at a time. What’s worse, there’s a snowball effect. As Verena von Pfetten writes in The New York Times, “The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted.” Multitasking, in short, is problematic.

Monotasking: do less, achieve more

For important and time-sensitive tasks – think meeting two competing deadlines rather than cooking dinner while chatting on the phone – Craig believes in the adage ‘slow and steady wins the race’: ‘monotasking’, the act of devoting your focus to one activity at a time, is the most productive approach.

“There’s no doubt that paying full attention to one task is, on the whole, most likely to give you the best performance compared to trying to spread your attention across several tasks,” Craig says. “If you’re doing it well and doing it efficiently, you’re not wasting time. So you’re less likely to be distracted by other thoughts.”

So how can we train our brains to stay focused? One way is by leaning into the practice of mindfulness. “Anyone who’s trying to do many tasks at once is probably not being mindful,” Craig suggests. Instead of drawing attention back to your breath when your mind wanders, monotasking asks you to draw attention back to the priority task at hand.

Here are five more tips to help you bring focus back into your busy life.

1. Admit you have a multitasking problem

Like any destructive habit, you can only break the multitasking cycle when you acknowledge your current pattern isn’t working for you.

“People have to recognise that the rationale is misplaced,” Craig says. “That they’re better off doing one thing at a time, and doing it well.”

2. Think about which tasks need your full attention, and when

Not everything needs to be monotasked. Craig suggests homing in on what’s important by asking yourself if there are dangerous consequences of doing a task poorly. “They’re the ones that need to go at the top of the list,” he says.

It helps to create structure around your workflow. Computer scientist and author Cal Newport outlines a prescription for what he calls ‘deep work’ – “rules for focused success in a distracted world”. These guidelines range from setting steadfast working hours to keeping a record of your goals and how productive you were at a task.

Make your #onechange

List out five common tasks that require a high level of your focus but often don’t get it. Every time you complete one, ask yourself afterwards, “How distracted was I?”

3. Remove distractions

Technology can be an efficiency liberator. But it can also be an efficiency inhibitor.

Think about all the times you’ve broken away from a task to idly check your email or social apps. “All these sorts of distractions can stop you from paying full attention to the one task that’s important,” Craig says. He suggests removing obvious distractions, wherever possible. This might mean turning off your phone’s notifications – or at the very least, turning your phone upside down or covering its screen.

4. Use resources and techniques

Not all tech is designed to distract. The Forest app, for instance, uses the pomodoro timer technique to keep you on task. It’s simple and fun. Basically, the less distracted you are, the stronger your ‘productivity tree’ grows – while distractions make your tree die.

Some experts suggest that mindfulness techniques such as meditation are great ways to improve focus. For Craig, good old-fashioned checklists and time blocks are also a great way to stay on task. “That might mean structuring periods where you focus on important tasks and times when you can do other tasks, like emails, that tend to be distracting,” he says.

5. Change your environment to help others

Craig believes that unproductive multitasking is not always the fault of the multitasker. Meetings, for example, are breeding grounds for frivolous multitasking. “People think they can be more productive by checking their emails throughout,” he says. “There’s no doubt that if somebody is emailing, then they’re not paying full attention to the meeting.”

Make your workplace more monotask-friendly by changing aspects of the environment that allow for distraction. If people are on their phones during meetings, come up with solutions to make the time more collaborative and engaging. This could mean anything from cutting meeting times in half to standing up instead of sitting down, or introducing a weekly rotation of themed snacks.

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writers come from a range of backgrounds including health, wellbeing, music, tech, culture and the arts. They spend their time researching the latest data and trends in the health market to deliver up-to-date information, helping everyday Australians live healthier lives. This is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.