✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic
As you're reading this article, it's more than likely that a message will appear on your phone and make you feel like it demands your attention. Perhaps you'll respond immediately because the idea of an unanswered message feels like an insult to the sender. And, once you’ve responded, you'll feel rewarded for having completed a task (even though seconds earlier, that task was entirely nonexistent).
Afterward, you might even hop on to social media to check what’s happening there, only to end up scrolling through your feed, completely forgetting about this article that you were reading, and missing out on valuable advice as a result.
Even though multitasking, a term that describes trying to do many things at once, might feel like the only way to catch up to the pace of our fast world, it might also be the reason tasks take longer to complete.
Multitasking is a computer-derived term that was adopted as business jargon to describe everyday work habits. And while this term is perfectly appropriate for computers that can execute multiple processes concurrently, it's less appropriate for people.
The Myth of Multitasking
When you think you're multitasking, you're not actually working on two tasks, but you’re rapidly switching from one task to another. You're doing something that's called context switching.
Context switching is when operating systems run multiple processes from the same central processing unit. For example, when you switch between apps on your computer, they store the context or state of a process so that it can be reloaded when required, and execution can be resumed from the same point as earlier. Basically, they will put the app “on hold” until you come back to it.
However, the brain is not hardwired to handle context switching the way that computers can. Every time you do task switching, you get tired much quicker than if you gave your undivided attention to one task.
That's because asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior) and striatum (part of the brain responsible for facilitating voluntary movement) to burn oxygenated glucose – the same fuel needed to stay focused on a task.
As a result, the stress hormone cortisol is released, and your higher cognitive activity shuts down. So, instead of solving a complicated problem, you may get aggressive or impulsive and make a mistake.
But why does attempting to multitask feel so satisfying when it feels like it’s done successfully?
When you multitask “successfully”, you activate the reward mechanism in your brain which releases dopamine, the happy hormone. This dopamine rush makes you feel so good that you believe you're being effective and further encourages your multitasking habit.
And, truthfully, not all attempts at multitasking are equally draining. For example, if you're doing something on autopilot, such as the laundry, it makes perfect sense to listen to a podcast. But attempting to do two cognitively challenging tasks at once will lead to a decrease in productivity.
Getting Started With Monotasking: A Smarter Way to Work
Instead of rapidly switching your attention from one activity to another, in order to be more productive, you should focus on monotasking: an approach where you focus on only one task at a time.
Monotasking not only cuts down on mental errors but can help unleash your creativity and production.
In his book Monotasking: How to Focus Your Mind, Be More Productive, and Improve Your Brain Health, Staffan Nöteberg writes about how you can develop techniques to keep your focus on important tasks.
Step #1: Recharge Creative Thinking
Even the world's most productive and successful people fail when they're tired.
So, before you start monotasking, try recharging your creative thinking and preparing your mind for optimum performance by:
Taking a walk or exercising: Research has shown that adults who average 150 minutes of physical activity per week are less likely to feel sleepy during the day or experience problems concentrating.
Eating a healthy diet: Healthy diet affects your thinking, creativity, and memory. Try to stay away from food that releases glucose quickly (like bread or cookies), because it gives you energy spikes followed by drops. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and a healthy amount of protein provide a steadier brain fuel supply.
Sleeping enough: Insufficient sleep may mean that you miss out on rapid eye movement (REM) stages during which you encode, remove, and sort new memories.
Daydreaming: Allowing yourself time to "space out" and let your mind wander can boost creativity. Researchers have found that daydreaming can lead to creative problem-solving.
Step #2: Optimize Your To-Do List
It’s difficult to prioritize when you have too many tasks to choose from. When that number is limited, you have a clearer perspective of priority, importance, and urgency. In order to successfully optimize your to-do list, try:
Figuring out your purpose for the upcoming week: Think about the most important project you're currently working on. What can you do to make significant progress within a week? Write it down on a sticky note and stick it on your desk so that it functions as a visual reminder while you work.
Limiting your daily to-do list to five tasks: These five tasks should not take more than an hour to complete and, if they do, break them down into smaller sub-tasks. If a new, important task comes in, swap it with one of the previous tasks. You can always add the removed task later on when its importance increases, but try to maintain a list that consists of five tasks at all times.
Creating a "Grass-Catcher List": This list should contain tasks that don't qualify for the short task list right now but might in the future. It's not limited or prioritized. It's just a collection of ideas that you don't want to forget. When adding items to this list, write down the goal of the task, the team members, and the due date. The latter is used when you’re trimming down the list so as to help with prioritization and make sure that eventually, the task will be completed.
Step #3: Work in the Panorama Rhythm
Monotasking means zooming in on one and only one task, and panorama means seeing the bigger picture and zooming out to get an unbroken view of all of your tasks.
The Panorama Rhythm concept described in the book Monotasking: How to Focus Your Mind, Be More Productive, and Improve Your Brain Health, consists of three elements:
The panorama cue: The panorama cue is the start of a monotasking session. It consists of setting an alarm that would signify the beginning of a panorama session.
This alarm should be set for at least twenty-five minutes from the moment you start working on your task.
Monotasking: During a monotasking session, you should only focus on the task at hand. If new tasks or ideas pop into your head, quickly jot them down on the Grass-Catcher List instead of switching tasks immediately.
The panorama session: When the alarm goes off, it's time for a panorama session. That means looking at all of your tasks and reprioritizing them. But before adding a new task from the Grass-Catcher List to the shortlist, make sure you have enough room. That means no more than five tasks.
However, try to avoid prioritizing urgent tasks over important tasks because completing essential tasks makes your long-term goals come true.
For example, when you’re in a reactive mode, you can lose sight of the bigger picture and put off working toward the important goal you set up for yourself at the beginning of the week thanks to other, more “urgent” tasks.
So, instead of tackling such tasks right away, try questioning the task's perceived urgency by asking yourself the following questions:
What will happen If I don't act? Thinking about the worst-case scenario is probably the fastest way for you to recognize a “false” emergency.
Is it a “hard achievement urgency”? According to Festinger, people tend to prioritize and value outcomes that require more effort to achieve.
Is it a “scarcity urgency”? Research shows that we act when a resource appears to be limited. For example, when you're offered responsibility for a task, and you don't take it, that means that the job will be given to your colleague, and you might not have another opportunity to tackle it.
Step #4: Locate Your Peak Performance Time and Guard It
You probably have a specific period of the day when you are focused, least distracted, and most likely to have breakthrough moments.
Once you identify your peak performance time of day, set that time aside as your time to do monotasking. You can even schedule it into your calendar! Make sure to guard this time by getting rid of distractions:
Turn off notifications for emails, social media, and instant messaging apps. By turning off your push notifications, you'll still have the chance to check your emails and messages, but only once you've completed your monotasking session.
Turn off Slack notifications while you monotask at work. You can automate it so they're deactivated between the hours when you’re trying to monotask.
Step #5: Take Frequent Breaks
Your attention span is limited, and if you work on the same task for several hours without a break, your focus will begin to wane and cause your mind to wander.
That's because neurotransmitters, brain chemicals that carry messages from one nerve cell to the next, can deplete after as little as 10 minutes of working on a cognitively demanding task. And these message carriers are necessary for you to stay focused and retain new information.
So, instead of drinking another cup of coffee in order to push yourself to finish a task, try taking a short break in order to help your brain consolidate information and retain it better.
In fact, studies have found that daily breaks can reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance, and even reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day.
Your daily breaks should allow for mind-wandering, so whether you're walking, staring out the window, listening to music, or reading, don't be afraid to disconnect! Rest is not the opposite of work. In fact, by letting your mind wander, you're actually making space for new, creative insights!
In our ever fast-paced world, trying to multitask and switching between different tasks throughout the day has become the norm. But if you want to work smarter and see the results of your efforts, then give monotasking a try. At the end of the day, it's not about how much you do that matters, but rather how well you do it.
When you work smart and are focused on your tasks, you’ll be able to look at what you’ve accomplished with pride. By rethinking the way you work, you can focus your attention on the things that truly matter. The things that will make you feel proud of yourself!
Multiple Myndlift users report monthly about changes in their behavior and lifestyle. Get matched with a Myndlift Provider, either by finding one in your area or by enrolling in our Total Remote program.
About the author:
Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.
Staffan Nöteberg, Monotasking: How to Focus Your Mind, Be More Productive, and Improve Your Brain Health, 2021, Racehorse.
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