Monotasking: One Thing at a Time

Posted by on May 6, 2016 in People and Culture, Top Stories

How often do you start reading something—an article, a story for school, an email—and jump to something else—another article, a text, or your Instagram? Some people call this multitasking while others say it’s distraction. Long before everyone became equipped with devices, the world was becoming increasingly busy. Consistent attempt at making things “easier”—two cars instead of one, convenience products and fast food, answering machines and VCRs—is now the norm. In an age of constant digital bombardment, paying attention to one thing at a time can be a significant challenge. This week, btw takes a look at monotasking: what it is, what it does, and how you can ultimately do more by focusing on less.

mother working on computer with bored baby. Scott Hortop/Getty Images. MHE Canada;MHE USA

Trying to do too much? Some studies suggest you need to simplify. Credit: Scott Hortop/Getty Images

Your Brain on Multitasking

Claiming to be good at juggling tasks used to be an impressive feat. But there are now many studies to prove that theory to be less than optimal. In 2009, researchers at Stanford University divided participants into those who regularly multitask and those who don’t. After three separate experiments, they found that those who focus on one thing at a time did remarkably better than those who don’t. The problem is that high multi-taskers found it difficult to ignore information that is irrelevant to the task at hand. They also found it impossible to stop thinking about other tasks that they were not performing.

More recently, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that interruptions lasting nearly five seconds tripled the number of errors on a cognitive test given simultaneously. Driving while distracted has become a recent concern for advocates of safe driving. Many compare it to the dangers of drunk driving. Researchers at the University of Utah used driving simulators to test the performance of those talking on a cell phone. While the distracted drivers did not display the aggressive or risk-taking behavior typical of those who are intoxicated, both were equally slow to react and failed to notice many visual cues around them (even those using hands-free devices).

Advantages of Singular Focus

When we leave things unfinished, we tend to have a better recollection of them. This can be good news when it comes to remembering the details of our new friendships, but distracting when completing things like homework assignments or home-improvement projects. The longer we keep something undone, the more our subconscious keeps it in the background while working on other projects. Research shows that the mere act of taking a cell phone off of a table (and into a pocket or purse) greatly improves our ability to be more invested in a conversation or lecture.

In making attempts to shift toward monotasking, it is important to recognize that there are different types of multitasking. The first is true multitasking, made up of two activities where both are very practiced and do not interfere with one another, such as knitting while listening to a lecture or playing the piano and singing. Another is task-switching, which is common in jobs where one is working on a project, while also answering emails regarding the status of a different project. Managing multiple projects is another kind. This means prioritizing things that need to be done, like breaking up parts of a school assignment in between going to the gym, getting an oil change, doing chores or going to a movie with a friend. The worst kind of “multi-tasking” is compulsive distraction. This is disappearing into the unending time-suck of social media updates and the “click-bait” tabloid articles. Rarely does anything productive come of this kind of task.

What Do You Think? Were you able to read this article all the way through without stopping? If so, is that typical? If not, what distracted you? Do you think you could shift to becoming more of a monotasker? Why or why not? Do some research and make a list of ten tips toward becoming a more focused “tasker.”