Multitasking is the bane of our existence. There is not a single task we do alone, and why should we? We consider multitasking to be efficient and beneficial. But is it? Are we able to live an effective and organized life by taking on multiple tasks at once?
Studies show that multitasking can be associated with low self-control and greater inattention.¹ We may think that our brain can multitask and focus on different things at once. When in reality, the brain is shifting focus and attention from one task to the other.
Studies have also shown that the brain is not designed to split focus and attention between different tasks.² Trying to perform secondary tasks inhibits the performance of the primary task.⁴
Research has shown that one usually participates in multitasking if they are unable to block distractions and focus on a single task.² So if multitasking is considered to be detrimental to our performance, what is the alternative?
What most people don’t consider is monotasking. As humans, we want to accomplish and finish as much as we can in a short period. We are constantly working and trying to get things done efficiently. Unfortunately, multitasking does not bring efficiency like we think it does. But, monotasking does.
Monotasking is completely focusing on one task at a time by minimizing interruptions. While focusing on a single task at hand, we are compelled to focus all our attention on one specific task.
Benefits of Monotasking
Those who practice monotasking are better at distributing their attention and blocking distractions.⁵ And those who are heavy multitaskers have a difficulty in filtering out irrelevant stimuli.⁵
Multitasking constitutes working with multiple interruptions. Switching from one task to another is constantly interrupting both tasks. Research shows that these constant interruptions increase our stress levels as well as add more frustration and work pressure. Monotasking reduces the number of interruptions and leads to less stress and frustration.⁶
Sometimes when we get distracted, we start to procrastinate and find it difficult to resume our task. Research has shown that while there is an evident decrease in performance in a primary task, there is also a “resumption lag”----meaning the time taken to resume the task after an interruption.⁸
If we practice monotasking with reduced interruptions, our resumption lag decreases as well, leading to less procrastination and increased task performance.
A study done by the Korea National University of Education indicated that low media multitasking (LMM) groups perform better than high media multitasking (HMM) groups in an experiment with e-learning courses.⁷
The LMM group had increased performance and were distracted less than the HMM group. The LMM group also switched a lot less between the primary task and the interfering media.⁷
The study has also demonstrated that constant switching between tasks can create cognitive overload. They concluded that media multitasking interferes with the primary task and needs to be evaded to perform better.⁷
Monotasking not only increases the performance quality but also decreases the workload. Constantly multitasking allows us to feel like we have the whole world on our plates, and the work is never-ending. But, finishing our tasks one by one creates satisfaction and allows us to focus and pay our undivided attention to the task at hand.
So, for a majority of us who multitask, what is the best way NOT to?
Tips to Monotask
Make a schedule
Making a schedule is an efficient way to start monotasking. Set aside a specific time and date for yourself and the task that needs to be completed. Try to set aside a downtime as well. Allow yourself to take the necessary breaks to relax and recharge while completing your tasks.
Another way is to prioritize your tasks. List out the most important tasks that need the utmost attention. Focus on everything else only after you have finished with those tasks. Making a schedule is something that has worked for me over the years on getting my tasks done.
Turn off your notifications (yes, ALL of them!)
One common mistake we all make while working is keeping our notifications on. As much as we like to believe that we put our phone away, most of us are guilty of checking our phones whenever we hear a notification sound.
It is important that we put our phones completely aside. If need be, placing it across the room to help us focus on our task. Turn off all your notifications and sounds on your phone, or put it on do not disturb.
Another way is to put your phone out of sight! If we can see our phone, we’re going to want to reach for it, and when we reach for it, we’re going to check our notifications. Next time you need to do a project, put your phone in a drawer and see how you do.
Sometimes we lose focus and our minds start to wander even when all our attention is given to a single task. In my experience, it can get difficult to work on one task for hours on end.
If you ever feel like your mind starts to wander, sit upright with your back straight, and practice some meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been known to reduce stress levels and to increase performance.⁹
Close your eyes and practice a few breathing exercises as well. Breathing exercises can increase blood circulation and oxygen uptake. The relaxation created by meditating helps stabilize the autonomic nervous system. These physiological responses allow those who practice meditation to be less prone to stress.¹⁰
Set up your environment
A great way to get started on monotasking and successfully monotask is to set up your environment. The environment in which one works is more important than one thinks it is.
Studies have related poor environments to a loss in productivity and reduced motivation.¹¹
Studies show that employees who are content with their work environment are more likely to have better work performance.¹²
Set up your environment the way you like it. Maybe with a candle or two, specific lighting, or with a hot cup of tea. The way you prepare yourself to work on a task is influenced by the environment you work in.
In our busy world, multitasking seems like the only way to go. But, with research at hand, we can conclude that it’s false. Multi-tasking is disadvantageous to us and our work performance. Why not switch it up to monotasking? To be able to work better and smarter, try monotasking. You can get so much more done, and you’ll be satisfied at the end of the day!
1. Shin, M., Linke, A., & Kemps, E. (2020). Moderate amounts of media multitasking are associated with optimal task performance and minimal mind wandering. Computers in Human Behavior, 111. https://doi-org.ezproxy.memphis.edu/10.1016/j.chb.2020.106422
2. Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Strayer, D. L., Medeiros-Ward, N., & Watson, J. M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PloS one, 8(1), e54402. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0054402
3. (n.d.). Retrieved October 21, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask
4. Gary, Chester J,D.D.S., J.D. (2017). Monotasking in a multitasking world. New York State Dental Journal, 83(4), 2-3. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/1929000327?accountid=14582
5. Ophir E., Nass C., Wagner A.D. (2009) Cognitive control in media multitaskers, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2009, 106 (37) 15583-15587; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0903620106
6. Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. CHI.
7. Song, K. S., Nam, S., Lim, H., & Kim, J. (2013). Analysis of youngsters’ media multitasking behaviors and effect on learning. International Journal of Multimedia and Ubiquitous Engineering, 8(4), 191-198.
8. Salvucci, D. D., & Bogunovich, P. (2010, April). Multitasking and monotasking: the effects of mental workload on deferred task interruptions. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 85-88).
9. Smith, B. S. (2020). A mindfulness meditation intervention to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression among medical and premedical students [ProQuest Information & Learning]. In Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences (Vol. 81, Issue 7–A).
10. Parshad O. (2004). Role of yoga in stress management. The West Indian medical journal, 53(3), 191–194
11. Olli A. Seppänen & William Fisk (2006) Some Quantitative Relations between Indoor Environmental Quality and Work Performance or Health, HVAC&R Research, 12:4, 957-973, DOI: 10.1080/10789669.2006.10391446
12. Kamarulzaman, N., Saleh, A. A., Hashim, S. Z., Hashim, H., & Abdul-Ghani, A. A. (2011). An overview of the influence of physical office environments towards employee. Procedia Engineering, 20, 262-268.