Monotasking: The benefits of focusing on one thing

Everyone knows the value of multitasking – the ability to complete more than one activity at the same time. But did you know that its inverse, known as monotasking, could actually lead to higher levels of productivity? We explore the benefits of monotasking and how to effectively implement this in your everyday life.

What is monotasking?

Also known as ‘single-tasking’, monotasking is simply the practice of focusing all your efforts on one job. The reason for doing so is typically to minimise interruptions from doing other tasks at the same time. It also usually means you can get the job done quicker than if you were juggling multiple tasks simultaneously.

Is monotasking more productive than multitasking?

Research in psychological science has suggested that multitasking is typically accompanied by a decrease in performance that becomes evident when compared to tasks done in isolation. While it can depend on the individual, this may suggest that monotasking can be more productive because it reduces distractions and means you can complete one job before moving onto the next.

While some rare individuals may find they are able to multitask effectively, a 2018 study of emergency physicians had noted that multitasking had a negative impact on task errors.

Benefits of monotasking

Unless you are one of the few individuals who can multitask well, it may be more beneficial to monotask. It might be fine to ‘multitask’ at home, such as listening to an audiobook while unpacking the dishwasher, but when the stakes are higher – especially at work – monotasking can be the most sensible and effective strategy.

Here are some of the potential benefits of monotasking that could help you be more focused and productive:

  • Fewer errors when your concentration isn’t spread across multiple projects.
  • Better quality of work when you are focused on one thing at a time.
  • Lower stress levels when you aren’t overwhelmed by competing deadlines.
  • Increased attention span when you aren’t distracted by other must-dos.

3 tips to monotask effectively

Ready to adjust how you approach ‘work mode’ by switching from a multitasker to a monotasker? Here are three easy-to-implement tips to do it effectively.

1. Narrow your to-do list

Do you often start your work day and feel immediately overwhelmed by the scale of tasks you need to complete? It’s easy to get bogged down in the minor details when you are trying to work across multiple jobs at the same time. So instead, list out your tasks from the most important to the least urgent.

Then focus all your attention on that very first task. When it’s done, you can check that box and move down the list until you are finished – or until the day is over. Then measure your productivity against how much you usually get done when you try to multitask – you might be surprised by your output.

2. Take advantage of helpful strategies and tools

If you are finding it hard to focus on just one thing, take a moment to empty your mind. Monotasking may be linked to mindfulness, so by bringing your attention back to something small and perceptible, like your breathing pattern, you can train your mind to monotask.

It may also be helpful to invest in technologies and other tools to help you monotask – from a simple countdown timer (e.g. give yourself 20 minutes to focus just one job), to noise-cancelling headphones for fewer distractions, to having a pen and notepad nearby to write out your thoughts in an organised manner.

3. Embrace ‘focus mode’

It’s easier to do this if you run your own business or work for yourself, but even if you work in a busy office you can take steps to get into your own ‘focus mode’. That might mean moving to a quieter area of the office or booking a meeting room for when you need to hit a hard deadline. Or it could simply mean blocking out time on the weekend to practise your monotasking skills.

Make today your first day of monotasking

Unlike trying a fad diet or getting a new haircut, monotasking is a permanent mindset shift that can help you become a more focused and productive individual – not just today, but over the long term. It can be hard trying something completely new, especially when you are already feeling pressured at work, but take some advice from Thatcher Wine, author of The Twelve Monotasks. He writes:

“Whether you call it monotasking, mindfulness, being present, or any other name, the goal is the same: Give your focus to one thing at a time. When we do things with our full focus, like reading a book, listening to someone in a conversation – amazing things can happen.”

“Throughout the pandemic, I read printed books to build my focus; I walked three times a day to get fresh air. I worked on my listening skills with my friends and family. I couldn't travel but I paid attention to things I had never noticed on the way to work. I relearned how to play piano at home by watching YouTube videos.”

“My efforts to monotask were successful. If I tried to do more than one thing, my stress levels increased. When I stayed focused and monotasked, I relaxed and became more productive. The antidote to our ever-expanding to-do lists, the distractions of modern life, and fragmentation of our attention is to do one thing at a time.”

Focus on the payoff

Just like any other skill, learning how to monotask may take time and effort. But the payoff for being more focused can be higher levels of productivity, reduced errors and the knowledge that you may become a more effective worker when you aren’t trying to take on everything at once.

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