At a certain stage when I was growing up, multi tasking was a coveted skill, something you might even put on a resume. After all, if you were a good multitasker, you could get a lot of different things done simultaneously. What could be more efficient than accomplishing multiple tasks at the same time?
Fast forward to the present day, and you’d never put down multitasking as a skill on your resume. While it sounds optimal in theory, you’d be hard pressed to find a more inefficient way of approaching tasks. Why?
In my head, multitasking should be efficient. I can work on NFL projection updates while monitoring Slack for colleague input, monitoring email for responses to data inquiries, and monitoring Twitter for any breaking news or valuable insights from other analysts. If there’s no specific projection update to make, I can slide back to a data analysis project I am working on. I can react to everything right away and avoid any wasted downtime.
In reality, multitasking results in a lack of focus. We have a finite amount of brain space and attention that we can use at any one point in time. Spreading that valuable, finite resource across multiple tasks at the same time means we aren’t properly focusing on any one thing. And without that focus, we’re not doing anything particularly well, let alone several things at once. It’s also not good from a speed standpoint even though it feels like it.
Every time I shift a task, my focus needs to recalibrate to the new task. Simply looking at Twitter, email, slack, a spreadsheet, or a Jupyter notebook, requires me to refocus. If you’re constantly sliding between several things or more at once, it’s hard to fathom how often we’re requiring our attention to refocus or reset and how much time is being drained and spent on this instead of actual productivity.
The truth for me is that multitasking unintentionally becomes a convenient way to get distracted and procrastinate while tricking myself into thinking I am being smart, efficient, and productive. Aside from the aforementioned focus issue, it’s not a good thing to be immediately reacting to everything right away. One reason is that I’m less likely to have an intelligent, fully formed opinion if I feel the need to handle things immediately, in part because I’m not taking the proper time to digest new information fully. This is difficult for me because it’s against my nature to leave things unsettled. I always want to solve problems as quickly as I can, but I am trying to reshape how I think about not reacting right away. A second reason is that I don’t stop to consider that what I’m reacting to might not even be worthy of my opinion in the first place. Now, I’m using time and brain space on something that doesn’t ultimately matter or isn’t aligned with what I’m trying to accomplish. A third reason is it’s a time suck. I may feel more productive scanning Twitter or email and handling things as they come in, but I could accomplish the same in less time by devoting a block or two of dedicated time throughout the day and ignoring otherwise.
Aside from feeling the need to react to things right away, multitasking prevents me from working through my problems. Any research on the best ways to learn and improve will undoubtedly unearth that difficulty is a good thing. It’s important and healthy to work our way through challenges and overcome them. I lose opportunities for this improvement if every time I hit a roadblock, it’s easy to turn my attention to a different task. Even as I am writing this post, more than once I’ve swiped on my laptop to go to another window. I don’t even know what for; it’s not deliberate. But my brain has been trained to take solace in checking something whenever I hit a point of boredom, difficulty, or simply haven’t in a while. Thankfully, I’ve increased the friction of switching tasks by closing out everything but this Google document, forcing myself to stick with it and work through this piece of writing.
Multitasking ultimately adds up to false feelings of productivity. It adds to underlying stress for me and hurts my self confidence. This has a compounding effect on my leisure time. Feeding the dopamine rush that is multitasking along with the lack of actual productivity, added stress, and reduced self confidence makes it much more difficult for me to detach and disconnect when it’s appropriate. I think a lot of us can feel like my friend Anthony Amico in a Tweet he posted the other day:
Enter monotasking. Monotasking, focusing on one task and one task only at a time, is incredibly simple in theory, but it takes time to rewire our brains to do it consistently in practice. I mostly suck at it, but am making some improvements.
The nice thing about monotasking is it can be skill based and habit forming. For example, at work there are various avenues for me to improve and contribute. That’s part of the reason I can get easily pulled into multitasking. However, I can take the high level areas I want to succeed at and think through the best ways I can develop the necessary skills. I want to contribute more to the social media team. I block off 15 minutes at two separate points of the day to be on Twitter. I am more deliberate in what I Tweet during these periods, and I avoid getting distracted by it throughout the day. I also want to get better on camera. So, I spend 20 minutes a couple of times a week to record quick videos for the social team to distribute.
When I want to work on a big data project, I set aside time for that. I don’t need to fully complete the project all at once. All I need to do is work on it for X amount of time with my full attention. The results in this area are pretty amazing when I am monotasking versus multitasking. A lot of times when I have less dedicated blocks of time to work on certain skills or projects, I end up procrastinating in areas where there’s uncertainty. Frequently, those areas are bigger data projects. They’re bigger in scope and are generally projects where I have some idea how I want to attack it, but it’s impossible to know specifically what to do or where it will take me until I dig in. The issue is, it’s hard to dig in when multitasking. I always end up wanting to work on something else that gives me that false sense of productivity in the moment because it’s “clearer” what to do. With monotasking, I dig in. I have no choice because I have that time period blocked off only to work on this project. So often, once I dig in, I’m surprised at how quick progress is. That’s not always the case and there are frequent challenges, but a lot of time my fear over the uncertainty of performing a task far outweighs the success I have at the task when I focus on it.
As I am writing the last two paragraphs, I don’t know how valuable they are. It seems so obvious and straightforward, but I do think there’s a subtle, positive shift that occurs when you take your skills and goals and convert them into dedicated blocks of time. Ironically, I become more productive by removing the pressure to be productive. I remove a lot of tiny little time sucks that add up exponentially throughout the day, in ways we’re mostly oblivious to. The increased focus allows me to be more thoughtful and creative. Jay Shetty, who I referenced in my last post, talks about routine sparking creativity in his book Think Like a Monk, and I think I understand what he means when I am monotasking.
This isn’t to say you should or need to schedule out your whole day. I don’t want to give that impression. In fact, one of the biggest benefits of monotasking is how much you can get done in a short period of time if you’re focused. This obviously depends on what your job/activity/hobby is, but you can take an 8 hour workday, for example, and reduce it down to 4 hours. You’ll likely get more done and feel better about yourself. So, depending on how busy and time sensitive my day is, I might attempt to do something like this:
2-20 minute Slack periods split between AM and PM (I fail at this every day, it’s bad)
2-15 minute Twitter periods split between AM and PM (removing Twitter from your phone is a big help)
20 minutes to work on social videos
20 minutes to work on writing for this newsletter
60 minutes to work on a big data project
30 minutes to work on NFL projection updates (spreadsheet work)
30 minutes of podcast planning and preparation
20 minutes working on or brainstorming an NFL content piece
That’s a little over four hours of scheduled work time, and if I actually focus on each of those blocks of time individually, I’ll be super productive. Those time carve outs don’t have to be exact, either. If you’re in the zone, in a flow state, you can extend the time block, and the singular focus increases the odds of that occurring. But having those minimum time blocks forces you to work at the skill or goal you have in mind for at least that amount of time resulting in some minimum level of productivity and enough space to navigate challenges.
It’s simple and obvious in practice, but monotasking definitely requires some discipline, patience, and trust in the process. Having small checklists, increasing the friction of distractions (closing unnecessary windows, leaving my phone in another room, etc.), and trying to channel the “one thing at a time” mantra is helpful, but I still often fail. When I am successful, my confidence rises because I know I’m shifting from the pretense of productivity to actual productivity and getting better at the things I want to improve at, all of which makes it so much easier to take a break and detach when it’s time to “shut it off”.
What tips do you have for staying focused and working on a single task at a time?
Love it. Cal Newport has a book/Ted talk on this called “Deep Work.” One of my go-to recommendations.
Nice article, Michael. I relate to all of your struggles and your search for help to improve in these areas. Specifically the concern about over-scheduling our time—my brain seems to immediately buck against the concept. I don't want that sort of rigidity in my schedule. It sounds boring, lacking in variety and spontaneity which are the spices of life that get me excited. But I've come to realize that the bucking comes from a part of me that's addicted to the short-term rewards that are part of my current habits and routine. The greatest rewards in life seem to come from doing the most difficult projects—not that they're necessarily intellectually more challenging, but are often self-directed, have no deadline, and require tremendous and consistent focus over a long period. So if you really want those rewards, you're forced to reconcile your current self with the type of person you need to be to achieve those things, and suddenly the scheduling starts to seem more appealing :D