Monotasking: Productivity's Silver Bullet?

The hamster wheel


About ten years ago, I experienced what I can only describe as a complete, all-out functional crisis. A state of utter paralysis induced by an emerging awareness that, although I was working longer hours and "doing" more each day than the day before, I fell more and more behind. It was as if I was in quicksand and the more frantically I tried to dig out, the deeper I sank. At the end of each day, after mostly doing whatever my inbox told me to do, I would stare, bleary-eyed, at my computer screen or my to-do list wondering if I had really accomplished anything at all.

During this same period, I started having trouble remembering names, errands I needed to run, calls I had to return, sometimes even what I'd eaten for lunch that day. But the final straw that brought it all to a crisis point was when I realized that I was beginning most emails and conversations with some sort of apology for not getting back to them earlier, for the delay in the project timeline, for the oversight in the product specs, for forgetting their birthday. I saw so clearly that I could not continue to live as this scattered, frenetic human being, but I had no idea how to regain some semblance of control in my life. Lucky for me, someone else did. 

Scott, a friend and colleague at the time who was an eye-witness to my near meltdown state, told me about a book he thought would help me find clarity and refocus my priorities. The book was Getting Things Done, by David Allen, which I am sure is well-known to many these days. But at that time, the concept of auditing my life, setting priorities, goals, and next actions, and then maintaining focus on those important things by controlling all the various communication outlets constantly shouting out information, was nothing short of a revelation. I followed the GTD mantra to the letter and, soon enough, I was no longer doing what the top of my Outlook inbox told me to do but, instead, was able to focus on projects, product development, client proposals, and other priority items. And after about 3 months of diligently sticking to the process, I felt like I was back in the driver's seat of my life.     

The world keeps On spinninG (Only Faster)

I would love to say that this turning point closed the book on my productivity challenges. But unfortunately, GTD, like any other effective system, requires consistency and habit. And there are an awful lot of distractions out there in the world that seem to have a knack for knocking me out of the saddle. While I did manage to pull myself back on a few times, it felt like I could never regain that initial Zen-like clarity I experienced when I first implemented Allen's GTD practice into my life.

And it is pretty clear that I am not the only one relapsing. There seem to be more books, new methodologies, and "game-changing" behavioral models promising the to cure the woes of our overworked, constantly-distracted, always-busy-yet-less-productive world. And lately, there has been a lot of talk about Monotasking, which is quite literally just the idea of doing one thing at a time. Not an incredibly disruptive concept, right? I believe, though, that this word is suddenly getting so much play (from a recent article in the Sunday New York Times to the TED stage) because of the growing consensus that the modern workplace is designed for multitasking. 

Modern Workplace Multitasking

And there is no shortage of information out there on the perils of multitasking. The charges against multitasking include everything from lowering workplace productivity to actually lowering our IQ. Yet many people believe that multitasking is foundational to the way we work and communicate today. We work on multiple monitors, toggle constantly between a literal index of open browser tabs, read and respond to Slack messages while on conference calls, and have specific ring tones or text message alerts for our bosses, spouses, or the babysitter. All, presumably, to help us manage life's competing priorities and get the most done each day that we possibly can. 

However, experts agree that multitasking is more often diluting our productivity. According to one such expert, an MIT neuroscientist named Earl Miller, the human brain is not at all designed to multitask. He is quoted in Daniel J. Levitin's research-laden missive, Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain

When people think they're multitasking, they're actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there's a cognitive cost in doing so.

That cognitive cost is exacerbated by the psychic load of our 24/7 accessibility and the distracting knowledge (that grows with each new IM alert or email ping) of one, then another, then another task competing for priority and attention. But what are we supposed to do? Just opt out? 

developing your digital Literacy skill Set 

Rather than viewing all of this as a stalemate between multitasking and single-tasking, perhaps we will find more clarity in looking at the continuing challenge of productivity and balance through a broader lens. Asking ourselves who or what is driving our agenda and our actions, instead of fixating only on our primary operational mode, will show us if our efforts are truly aligned with the goals we set out to achieve. The catch is knowing what those goals actually are, which can be a whole lot more difficult than it sounds. 

The paradigm-shifting potential of this approach is perhaps most clearly illustrated in what is known today as the Ivy Lee Method, which is based on Mr. Lee's advice to the Bethlehem Steel Corporation for how to improve its efficiency and performance. His suggestion to the man in charge at Bethlehem, Charles Schwab, appeared exceedingly simple–at the close of every work day, each manager was to list six (and only six) priorities for the following day, then rank those six items in order of importance. This would then serve as their next day's agenda, which they should work through in order and could not to move on to the next task until the prior task has been completed. Then they should repeat the process each day going forward. The resulting increase in productivity (and revenue) after only a few months of this new practice was so dramatic that Charles Schwab deemed Lee's recommendation the most lucrative advice he had ever received.

You might be thinking that this sounds like a nice concept, but the managers at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation didn't work from multiple devices (often simultaneously) nor was constant information flying so rapidly at them from all directions that they could never let their guards down for fear of missing something. You may argue that monotasking might have worked for them, but it's just not realistic in the modern workplace. 


But let's consider an alternative approach, rooted in the concept of our defining goals rather than our reactive operational behaviors. I really like the way Note to Self podcast host, Manoush Zomorodi, explains it when she asserts than monotasking is not just another productivity slogan to increase our overall output. Instead, she insists that the ability to single-task in our digital, multi-input world, is quite simply a necessary "digital literacy skill." Like understanding the rules of email etiquette or how to backup important files to cloud storage, the ability to monotask–to effectively distinguish information delivery vehicles from our to-do list, to prioritize work based on actual goals, and to manage our engagement with digital communication tools accordingly–is merely another learned behavior necessary to successfully communicate and work within our modern digital environment. 

Consider taking on the challenge of incorporating monotasking behavior into your current way of life–even just for a week. Establish your top goals or tasks to accomplish and then designate specific intervals throughout the day during which you will unplug and focus on one priority at a time. Close your email, turn the sound off on your computer, eliminate as many distractions as is realistic. It helps me to add these focus intervals to my calendar, with reminders to plug back in (at least) three times a day to process new emails, voicemails, and other important communication. The results of your monotasking pilot may surprise you.

My own pilot has begun to grow roots and seems to be quickly morphing into habit. What I can say is that I am more present in conversations, retain more from each day's activities, have seen a consistent increase in both the volume and quality of my work, and I have a clearer strategic vision for client projects and my own company.

When I was just starting out, though, I found this graphic on Achieving More by Doing Less to be a motivating reminder of why I was attempting this whole rewiring experiment in the first place. It is still tacked to the bulletin board above my desk, serving as a fresh reminder each morning to breathe, review my priorities, and then get to work. 

Achieve More by Doing Less

Never stop learning.


Have comments or questions? Feel free to join the conversation in the Comments section below or connect with me on Twitter (@alimnewcomb).