Monday, May 20, 2013


Unitasking Instead of Multitasking is the New Way to Work


I shall be doing a short series of productivity blogs here next.

I have blogged on Monk Mind: How to Increase Your Focus by Leo Babauta before. I'm combining those previous posts into one here.

The buzzword of the late 1990s and 2000s was multitasking. Everyone wanted to be multitasking or wanted it bruited about that they were efficient multitaskers.

But the key question these high achievers failed to ask was: Were they effective as multitaskers? That is, at the end of the day, given the same set of tasks, did the multitaskers or the unitaskers achieve more in terms of quality and quantity?

Has this ever happened to you? You're reading a document, when it suddenly reminds you of the email your friend sent to you yesterday that you hadn't replied to, so you open your email program, only to find two high priority emails from your boss that you start answering, only to be interrupted by your co-worker calling you for lunch. And so your mid-morning goes, by the end of which, all you've achieved is a meal.

Behavior and social scientists now believe that constant context-switching between various tasks causes people to be less effective overall. For something like walking and chewing gum, multitasking works. For something like, writing a scene of your book with complex fight choreography and also having a protracted discussion via email on the minutiae of book contract negotiations, multitasking is counterproductive to achieving the milestones for either of the two tasks.

Every time you switch away from task one to task two, you have to reload all the details about task two in your mind before you can start working. Similarly, switching back to task one requires you to reload those set of details, and back and forth.

In Monk Mind, blogger Leo Babauta explodes the myth that multitaskers are getting more work done and are getting more satisfaction from that work, in terms of quality and sense of achievement.

So for the intellectually challenging tasks, tasks that require a lot of attention and care, tasks involving physical and emotional intimacy, etc., unitasking is to be lauded and actively pursued, because focusing on single tasks is the way to go in order to achieve success.

How do you go about focusing the mind on a single task? Take the case of writing an article for a magazine.

Clear Away Distractions

Close all email systems, browsers, and social media programs.

Turn off all notifications.

Disconect your computer from the Internet.

Clear your desk of all pieces of paper except for those necessary for your selected task. As in the case of writing the article, you'll need your folder of research material, interview transcripts, and notes.

Leave only the programs open that are necessary for achieving your selected task. So for the article, perhaps you'll need the folder where you've saved your research and nascent article files and your word processing program.

Plug in headphones, whether you play music or not is up to you. Headphones cut out ambient sound and also signal to other people that Serious Work Is In Progress.

Now, do nothing but that one task.

Practice Doing One Thing

If you can't focus on one task for more than a few minutes, start out with small goals in the begining. Say, you'll work on your task for five minutes, then reward yourself by taking a one-minute break to read email. Slowly build up to ten minutes on, one minute off; and so on. Be sure to have a timer set so that you can accurately build this up. In his article, Leo writes, "Set up a positive feedback cycle for single-tasking focus, and you’ll reverse the years of training your mind has gotten to switch tasks."

Sounds overly simplistic? Give it a try. The mind is flexible and can be retrained.

In conclusion, Leo writes, "While a few years ago I couldn’t sit down to work on something without quickly switching to email or one of my favorite Internet forums or sites, today I can sit down and write. I can clear away distractions, when I set my mind to it, and do one thing. And that changes everything: you lose yourself in that task, become so immersed that you pour everything you have into the work, and it becomes a meditative, transformative experience. Your happiness increases, stress goes down, and [quality of] work improves."

An aside...

However, busy moms will still prize multitasking. For example, here's what writer Monica Trasandes wrote in the December 2012 issue of Real Simple: "Recently I found myself walking toward the kitchen with a load of laundry in my arms, two empty coffee cups dangling from my fingers, and car keys tucked between my chin and the clothes."

I think Trasandes is a lightweight. I'd have a book tucked under one arm, a purse dangling from that elbow, the mugs held in one hand, while an empty water bottle and a board game are firmly clasped in the other hand, in addition to the laundry and keys.


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