On Monotasking

A little while ago I read an article on mono-tasking. As you may have guessed, it’s the opposite of multi-tasking. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t capable of taking more than one thing on at a time, it just means you choose not to. The article suggests that by focusing your energy fully on one task, you will do a better job, get things done faster, and be more productive. I find myself thinking about this a lot these days, usually when I’m up to my eyeballs in a billion different deadlines.

It seems like society encourages multitasking. We all agree that we live in a busy time, and everyone has a lot on the go. Being able to juggle a number of things at once is a prized skill. You’re encouraged to put it on resumes and in cover letters. (Lord knows I have).  But as I flick through all of the tabs open in my browser, paying my visa bill while Photoshop opens, or checking my facebook while a file loads, I wonder if this really is the better way.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi suggests that humans are wired to be happiest when in a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand. (It’s a little more complicated than that – you can hear him talk about it here.) But does this mean we’re less happy when we’re working on a number of things at once?

I am a multitasker. Or, I’m easily distracted. Or both. I think some of my flitting about is due to my personality (I tend to take on a lot), and some of it is due to habit (I’m a twenty-something living in the digital age; what can I say?) I’m embarrassed at how many times I’ve navigated away from this page while writing. But I have been trying to be better at focusing on one thing at a time. Here’s how I’ve been going about it:

– make a list (whatever works best for you; list by day, week, or just a general ‘to do’)
– prioritize the list (list in order of time sensitivity and importance)
– cut the crap (I bet quickly checking your twitter feed was not on the list)
– stick with it (crossing things off lists feels great)
– take a real break (guilt free. go for a walk. have some lunch. check in with twitter.)

My question to you is, do you think one approach is better than another? I still really can’t decide. I feel like I tend to have productive days and stand-still days, no matter whether I’m multi or mono tasking, but I can’t say for sure. Do you have a secret to make it work for you? Are you strongly in one court over the other? (Are you reading this while you wait for Photoshop to load?….)


Image Sources:Ben Sutherland and johntrainor


  1. As someone who doesn’t have a lot of externally-imposed structures for her workday, I love this topic…and I’ve recently made a serious effort to mono-task. I find it helps if I break jobs down into smaller tasks (not “finish article” but “check this source”, “write this section”, “outline next section”). That way I can complete one task in a reasonable amount of time, usually under an hour, and then go on to the next task in that job or switch to another job if I’m getting fed up. It works best when I can turn off my internet for the specified block of time:)


  2. Having a prioritized TO DO list will help you to complete really important tasks with significantly less stress. Even if something or someone interrupted you, it is so much easier just to get back to your TO DO list and continue with it.
    Statistically, an average person could not concentrate fully for longer than 30-45 min. So, everyone would have to have breaks. During the breaks you could do other smaller and less important tasks, like make a quick phone call, etc.


  3. In the process of reading this blog entry and writing this comment I: opened and closed Photoshop 2-3 times, edited a number of photos, sent a few emails and dealt with a few customers…over the span of a few hours. (Yes it took me a few hours to go from opening to page to writing this comment).

    I can definitely see the downfall of multitasking if you get distracted from your main objectives. Especially if an important task slips through unfinished as a deadline passes.

    I find a list is the best way to keep on top of important tasks (especially if you’re working on more than one task at a time). Just seeing the visual of what needs to be done and what things are most important is very helpful (plus who doesn’t love crossing things off when they are done!).

    I also find that writing a list helps you organize your time. As I write lists I often realize that I have a lot more to do than I originally thought. Writing the list helps me not only remember what needs to be done, be prioritize and make sure the important things get done first.


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