Is monotasking the future of work?

Charukesi Ramadurai 23 May 2022

For years multitasking has been revered as the most efficient way to work, but experts are increasingly pointing to a different way—monotasking.

British journalist Jeremy Clarkson once famously declared, “Multitasking is the ability to screw everything up simultaneously.” And, speaking at a finance industry event a few years ago, American neuroscientist Daniel Levitin decried multitasking as a myth, saying “It doesn’t work.”

Long feted as a valuable, and indeed essential skill for increasing productivity, multitasking has become a way of life for many of us. Think multiple tabs open on the internet while at work, replying to emails while at dinner, checking Instagram while listening to a podcast. All along, self-professed multitaskers (and let’s admit it, that is most of us) have been patting ourselves on the back for being so efficient. That is until the dreaded virus came along.

laptop and list for productivity
Photo by Andrew Neel

Two years of the pandemic has left us exhausted, at both the physical and mental level. For most people across the world, it has meant taking care of the house, jobs, kids, and other relationships—often all at the same time. We have been constantly switching our attention between various tasks that required our mental skills, physical efforts, or sometimes just sheer presence.

Just three years after the WHO recognized burnout as an occupational health issue, the problem is only worse than ever before. And multitasking seems to have played a major role in this. Multitasking has been shown not just to decrease productivity, but also to increase stress and anxiety, by ramping up the production of cortisol, the stress hormone.

Read more: 8 Signs stress is making you sick

Why doesn't multitasking work?

trying to multitask on laptop while eating noodles
Photo by No Revisions

In fact, as it turns out, our brains are just not designed for multitasking, even if we take pride in our ability to do several things at the same time. In fact, according to researchers, the idea of multitasking itself is a fallacy (except with “automatic” tasks, such as listening to music while running on the treadmill). Most often, when we think we are doing more than one thing at a time, we are actually just quickly switching from one task to another. And this involves what is known as a switching cost, a process that drains our energy and reduces our attention span.

A 2009 Stanford University study suggests that over time, multitasking takes a toll on our cognitive abilities. Even more disturbing research by a psychology professor at the University of Utah has indicated that drivers who used their mobile phones were just as dangerous as drunk drivers.

Enough reason then to embrace monotasking.

What is monotasking?

girl smiling at laptop
Photo by Frank Romero

Also known as single-tasking, it means focusing on one activity at a time and giving it all your attention. Monotasking is believed to increase efficiency, reduce attention fatigue and enhance mindfulness. In some cases, it even leads to increased enjoyment of the task, which is why leisure activities such as adult colouring books, hula hooping, and banana bread baking have become so popular during these last couple of years.

Research has repeatedly shown that paying attention to a single task actually improves performance, given that humans are good at doing sequential tasks rather than simultaneous ones. Among other benefits, monotasking also decreases the chance of errors, cultivates mindfulness, lowers stress, and increases productivity.

"It even leads to increased enjoyment of the task"

Thatcher Wine, the author of The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better, writes on his website that it increases overall wellbeing and happiness by helping us build more meaningful relationships in our lives. “When you monotask the time you spend with friends and family, you become more connected, become a better listener, and feel more what they are feeling.”

Author and computer science professor at Georgetown University, Cal Newport, calls this skill Deep Work. “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.” he writes.

How to start monotasking

woman working on laptop
Photo by Thought Catalog

Monotasking may sound daunting or even distasteful at first; who likes delayed gratification, even if that means just putting off watching Instagram reels until later? But there are easy ways to start practicing monotasking in our lives, as suggested by experts. These include switching off notifications, making a daily work (and play) schedule, using concentration tools such as the Pomodoro Technique, and adopting regular mindfulness practices.

In her book on dealing with mental health issues, Anxiety: Overcome It and Live Without Fear, clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta also introduces the concept of "pause rituals". She writes about creating “a set of self-soothing activities into our daily schedule instead of engaging only when we are headed for a breakdown or meltdown. The key idea is that we monotask as we engage in them.”

These could be as simple as taking time just to enjoy a cup of tea in the middle of the workday, to stepping away from a stressful situation for a few minutes of deep breathing.

As many wise minds have said, the most efficient way to do many things is to do one thing at a time.

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