Monotasking, also known as single-tasking, is the practice of dedicating oneself to a given task and minimizing potential interruptions until the task is completed or a significant period of time has elapsed. Monotasking contrasts with multitasking, which is the ability to divide one's focus among multiple tasks.
This is the textbook definition of monotasking. According to Bryant Adibe, M.D., monotasking is a deep mindset and causes you to reexamine your relationship to time - your most precious and fundamental asset.
Bryant Adibe says, "At the end of our lives, no one will remember how quickly we responded to emails; and no one on their deathbed asks for more time to sit through another budget meeting. Instead, we look for more time to do and experience the things that give us meaning and a sense of purpose. That is at the core of mono-tasking - it is about rethinking the way we work so that we can more meaningfully engage with our environment."
Multitasking and the brain
Studies indicate that multi-taskers experience a lowering of their IQ, and chronic multi-tasking can decrease the grey matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex region of the brain - this is the area associated with empathy and emotional control.
When you multitask, you are not actually doing multiple things at once. Instead your brain is rapidly shifting attention sequentially between each of the activities you are attempting. This is known as "task-switching" and it is the death of productivity. Although each of these episodes occurs within a fraction of a second, research shows that these episodes can decrease productivity by 40%.
Task-switching occurs even in simple mundane activities like checking your text messages, email notifications, or even when a colleague stops by your desk to chat. Anything that diverts your attention and focus causes a task-switching episode.
Since you cannot control all outside stimuli and in some cases you will have to task-switch, like cooking and talking to your children at the same time, it's even more important to develop a monotasking mindset in areas of your life that you can control, like work and personal self-care.
Bryant Adibe who currently serves as the Chief Wellness Officer at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles, has 5 tips for getting yourself into a monotasking mindset.
Tips to get into the monotasking mindset today
1. Deep work
In order to monotask, you will need to increase your capacity for deep work. Deep work is the ability to focus on a demanding task - one that requires higher levels of cognitive ability and awareness - without distractions for an extended period of time.
Most people only skim the surface when it comes to concentration and engagement. You end up working in short bursts between 15 and 20 minutes at a time. The continuous flow of inattention prevents you from delving deeper to a level where real connection is made. When you consistently work in a shallow and distracted frame of mind, you could permanently reduce your ability to achieve deeper levels of focus and attention when you need it the most.
Practicing deep work, will correct this. Each day set aside 2 to 4 hours where you can focus on a single project without interruption (no phones, email, conversations, social media). This kind of singular focus will engage both sides of your brain and you will likely be able to achieve the kind of breakthroughs that make the biggest impact on the project you are working on.
For more deep work, read Deep Work by Cal Newport.
2. Locate your peak performance time
Everyone has a specific period of the day when you are at your best. This is when you are sharpest, least distracted and most likely to have breakthrough moments. This period of time is also when monotasking will be the easiest for you.
For some it occurs in the morning and other's late at night. In either case, it is important to study yourself and locate what your peak performance time is.
If you do not have awareness of when your peak performance time is, you run the risk of commuting during that time, or sleeping through it, or conversely, attempting to do higher level thinking when you are tired, disengaged and in your least creative state.
Once you are able to identify your peak performance time of the day, set that time aside as your protected time to do deep work. Guard this time period. It's your holy moment.
3. Eliminating distractions down and focusing on two important questions
Monotasking is less about focusing in on one goal, and more about eliminating distractions that prevent you from accomplishing the one goal.
Sometimes the worst distraction is your own well-intentioned desire to be productive.
You can start the day with 10 items on your to-do list and hope to accomplish them all. If you don't get to all of them you may start to self-judge and feel unproductive, only to repeat the cycle tomorrow.
Instead, start your day by asking yourself two questions:
1. What could I do today that will bring me a sense of meaning and purpose?
2. What are the two most important things I can do today that would have the greatest impact?
The first question reminds you to incorporate activities in your day that bring you fulfillment and promote well being, like reading a book to your child or going on a hike with your dog. The second question forced you to drill down on two items that actually matter, taking your attention away from items that are only seemingly important on the surface.
4. Build your day like a skyscraper
Modern skyscrapers are often built using a core structural tube surrounded on the periphery by support beams. You can use the same durable and resilient concept to structure your days.
At the core are your top two most important tasks from the second question above. Surrounded on the periphery are the necessary, but lower-yield, tasks that you must do. Things like responding to emails, making phone calls, errands, or paperwork.
Schedule your deep work in 2 to 4 hour blocks that anchor your day, and gather the other peripheral activities into set batches that you can knock out together.
For example, instead of responding to all emails as they come in, set predetermined hours - like 8AM, noon, and 5PM. You can use a similar system for making phone calls, sending texts, or checking/posting on social media. By aggregating these activities and knocking them out all together, you save time and reduce the need to multi-task with them as you work. Most importantly, it will enable you to focus on each message or call with your undivided attention - that's mono-tasking.
5. Create and schedule negative time
Mono-tasking doesn't only apply to work - it is equally important with your time off.
Too often you are still mentally engaged with work when you should be spending time with your kids and family. It's a phenomenon known as "attention residue," which means you are still thinking about one task, while you have physically moved on to the next. It is a harmful consequence of multitasking.
Negative time is time set aside to do absolutely nothing. In most cases, your schedule is bombarded from sunrise to sunset leaving no empty room for you. You need that time, neurologically, to give your brain a break. Giving your brain a break allows you to integrate, problem solve and connect dots in the background on a much deeper level.
Creating and scheduling negative time allow you to return to work refreshed with a clear perspective.
You can create negative time by setting clear boundaries for when your work day actually begins and when you are no longer available (even by email). Plan 1 to 2 hours per day where you can rest, empty your mind, and engage in activity that reduces your stress - like a walk, reading a book, meditating or being in nature. Regardless of the activity, the important thing is to be present and meaningfully engage with your restful environment.
For a deeper delve into building habits around monotasking, read Tools of Titans by Tim Ferris.
Bryant Adibe also recommends using airplane mode on your cell phone more often. During his own deep work sessions, he keeps his phone in a separate room and he says if he could he would freeze it in ice. It's worth the focus, well being and productivity.