The Joys of Monotasking

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Texting while driving, listening to music while reading, watching TV while doing work, and eating while getting dressed. Sound familiar? Distractions and interruptions are an inevitable part of everyday life. In an age where time is such a valuable asset, multitasking versus monotasking seems like a no-brainer. When our phones are even made to multitask along with us, why focus on one thing at a time when it's seems more efficient to do three?

Turns out it's not so simple. Research into task management finds that, for the most part, participants who strategize how they manage tasks are able to produce better work versus those who constantly switch between different ones [1]. But there's more to it.

Focus, Focus, Focus - The Takeaway

By focusing on a single task, the quality of work can increase by a significant amount [1]. That doesn't mean it's necessary to close every other tab in the browser, but prioritizing and focusing on a specific task will increase the perception of its significance [3]. When people return to a task after being interrupted, there is the potentially damaging (especially cumulatively) mindset of “catching up” for time lost while being distracted and hastily completing a task [3].

While it turns out there are some so-called "supertaskers" who can efficiently multitask without diminishing their results, these people make up only 2.5% of the a population [5]. Interestingly enough, the study shows that the supertaskers were the people who multitasked the least amount of times [5]. Maybe it's time to give that smartphone a rest... 

Monotasking is quite simple: just focus. Of course, that's easier said than done. Self-control, willpower, and developing an organized strategy are all important keys to be successful. But, if all else fails, here are a couple of web tools to help:

  • SelfControl: This program (Mac only) blocks e-mail service and websites for a predetermined amount of time. Once the program starts, it won’t provide access to the sites until after the timer is complete. Seriously. Similar apps include Freedom and Concentrate.
  • Haze Over (Mac) and Jedi Concentrate (PC): These apps will darken the areas outside of the active window with simply a  hotkey. Both are solid options for Mac and PC, though Jedi Concentrate is clearly the better name.
  • Darkroom, Writeroom, Typewriter, Writemonkey: These create full-screen, distraction-free writing environments. Unlike standard word processors with all their gizmos and gadgets, here it's just about the text.
  • Rescue Time Don't think there's a need for the programs above? Find out with this automated time tracking & management software that displays where time was spent throughout the day on the computer

Even though these tools are computer-based, real life monotasking can be an efficient way to produce higher quality work (with some planning, of course).

The Tip

You don't have the time not to multitask! Even with a million things to do on the agenda, monotasking is a proven way to produce higher quality work. Develop strategies, download tools, and plan ahead to make it happen.

Updated August 2011

Works Cited

  1. A comparison of human and near-optimal task management behavior. Shakeri, S.,  Funk, K. Oregon State University. Human Factors 2007 Jun;49(3):400-16.
  2. A comparison of human and near-optimal task management behavior. Shakeri, S.,  Funk, K. Oregon State University. Human Factors 2007 Jun;49(3):400-16.
  3. The impact of interruptions on clinical task completion. Westbrook, JI., Coiera, E., Dunsmuir, WT., et al. The University of Sydney, Lidcombe, Sydney 1825, Australia. Johanna. Quality & Safety in Health Care 2010 Aug;19(4):284-9.
  4. The impact of interruptions on clinical task completion. Westbrook, JI., Coiera, E., Dunsmuir, WT., et al. The University of Sydney, Lidcombe, Sydney 1825, Australia. Johanna. Quality & Safety in Health Care 2010 Aug;19(4):284-9.
  5. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Watson, JM., Strayer, DL. Department of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT USA. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2010 Aug;17(4):479-85.
  6. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Watson, JM., Strayer, DL. Department of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT USA. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 2010 Aug;17(4):479-85.

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