For most knowledge workers, it’s hard to remember a time when you weren’t busy. It may be even more difficult to recall when you could lose yourself so deeply in work that nothing could distract you. These days, notifications from desktop and mobile apps along with a steady flow of emails and stacking projects pull attention away from your to-do list. Distractions and competing deadlines can also lure you into a false sense of productivity through multitasking.
For many, the days of falling into a project task only to look up and see hours passed are long gone. They don’t have to be forgotten, however. If you want to find a way back to productivity,
Monotasking can help. This act of dedicating yourself to one task is a skill that can be established and improved upon over time. No matter where you’re starting, there are four steps that can help you see progress in your monotasking – and overall productivity.
What is monotasking?
Monotasking is what its prefix implies: a focus on one task. Also known as single-tasking, monotasking is the act or practice of remaining focused on one task until you reach a stated goal – or the end of a specific period of time.
Monotasking is the opposite of multitasking, which research shows can increase stress, and in some cases, raise stress hormones, like cortisol, in the brain. Stress can be a productivity killer, despite what instant gratification comes from switching back and forth between two or more tasks at once. Reducing stress, increasing productivity, and finding more fulfillment in your work are a few of the key benefits of practicing monotasking. The only thing standing in the way is starting. I’ve put together four distinct steps that can be followed chronologically or taken individually as needed to help you get started on – or maintain – your monotasking journey.
1. Start small
Monotasking is all about intense focus on a single task. It takes your brain time to get to this level. One suggestion says two to four hours of deep work can be a good ultimate goal for monotasking. This is a worthy objective, but I imagine if I challenged you to close this browser tab and focus on one task for the next two hours with no distractions, you might come up short.
Try to recall what a long work session looks like now. It may not be more than 10 or 15 minutes, thanks to interruptions. If you can pinpoint what a current work session looks like, take that time and add ten minutes to come up with your first monotasking session goal. If you usually work for 15 minutes, then aim for 25. If you’re not sure, start with a baseline of 20 minutes. With this baseline, employ the pomodoro technique to complete work sessions.
Set a pomodoro timer for your work session and after each one, take a break for anywhere from a minute up to fifteen minutes before going back to work. After each week of consistently hitting your focus time goal, add five to ten additional minutes. Over time, you can work your way up to a few hours of time dedicated solely to the tasks at hand.
2. Divide and conquer your tasks
Start with important tasks – like steps needed to move a project forward – and identify which of the important tasks require deep focus. Save these deep focus tasks for the part of your day where you feel most energized and refreshed.
You may feel most refreshed at the beginning of the day and again in the afternoon after a lunch break to refuel and move your body. The morning may also be the only time you feel the level of energy needed to chip away at big pieces of a project. Note that time for you and save it for more intense tasks.
For any task that doesn’t drain your brain, but still requires your full attention, identify time slots throughout the day to catch up on them. This goes for responding to emails and DMs from co-workers, as well as any recurring tasks that take a minute or two on their own and can be batched together.
I can’t talk about dividing tasks without mentioning the research on starting your day with small tasks versus more intense ones – like a milestone needed to advance a project. The short answer to this dilemma is that research is divided. On one side, a study of more than 500 workers found that those who checked off a few mundane tasks every morning before diving into deeper work were more productive than those who started with their largest task – an outcome pinned to completion bias. On the other side, many swear by Mark Twain’s advice to eat your frog first thing in the morning. researchers crunched data from 84 doctors in an ER over the course of five years. They found doctors who chose more difficult patient cases were more productive over the long-term versus doctors who chose easier cases.
Rather than taking either as gospel, the variety in research conclusions shows that different approaches may work for different people based on the factors impacting their work. The takeaway here is that there is a way to be more productive based on the type of task you tackle first. It’s up to you to try on an approach and find which tasks to take on first.
3. Make a plan for distractions
Identify what causes distractions for you: the weekly check-ins on Slack channels, family group texts, app notifications, package deliveries, dog walks, and more. Smartphones all come with a do not disturb mode. As does Slack. Set up your phone’s do not disturb feature based on your blocks of time and the urgency of a notification – like a call from your child’s school. Clockwise can also help by curbing work distractions. Clockwise automatically sets notifications in Slack so co-workers know you’ll be responding asynchronously and keeps your calendar in order to maximize uninterrupted focus time.
4. Save room for dessert
One of the more compelling parts of my research for this post is the call to make time for negative time. This is your time to have absolutely no plans, goals, or aims in mind. It is open and up to your desires at the moment. Take a long walk with your dog. Sit down and read a book. Embroil yourself in passionate discourse on a social media thread. Even though this time is unstructured, it’s critical to mark it off in your calendar. It deserves to be free from other distractions and work.
Go forth and conquer
There is no end to the content on time management and hacking your productivity. I felt close to the end in researching and building these steps to monotasking, but the reality is the world is not slowing down and neither are productivity hacks. Work lives and home lives are packed leaving many people stressed and anxious about the bottomless pit of tasks.
Monotasking is an approach to productivity that understands the demands of a varied life and gives you the tools to put your best foot forward every morning. It’s a call back to when it was easy to focus on one task without interruption and a renewing of the accomplishment that comes with sitting in deep focus to advance your work. It can take time to ramp up, but building your own practice of monotasking can pay off in long-term productivity – and maybe even your sanity.