Monotasking

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Photo by Karina Carvalho (https://unsplash.com/@karinacarvalho)

I cannot do two things at once and do either one well. I try. Oh, life keeps making me try. But I am not a multitasker.

I’m a dedicated monotasker.

I can accomplish a lot of things. Give me a list, get out of my way, and I’ll conquer it. But I’ll do so one item at a time.

My preference for monotasking is evident in the activities I enjoy, like writing and reading novels, untangling and refactoring a messy bit of software code, or watching a marathon* of a great television show. If it is something I can get mentally involved in for a long time, losing all track of the outside world, blissfully sailing along in flow, count me in.

On the other hand, the days in which I have ten things to do and eight minutes in which to do them are the worst. When I find myself having to juggle multiple tasks for work, the demands of fatherhood, an unexpected incoming phone call, and do it all in a small timebox, that is the time when Cranky Mike is present.

I always knew multitasking was hazardous to my mental health, but I didn’t realize how detrimental it could be until a couple of months ago when I read about a study that found multitasking with electronic media might reduce your IQ.

A much larger study … found a significant negative correlation between media-multitasking and brain density in one part of the brain–the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved with impulse control, reward anticipation, and decision-making. What does that mean? A negative correlation means higher amounts of one variable (e.g. minutes of multitasking behavior) are strongly linked with lower amounts of another (e.g. brain density). Significant means the findings are unlikely to be explained by chance. Correlational studies like this don’t prove that one variable’s changes cause the other’s, by the way, but they’re important in the same way circumstantial evidence is important to a detective; following their trail can lead to stronger, causal evidence.

I knew I felt stupid when multitasking. I didn’t realize it may have been the multitasking itself that was making me stupid.

But as much as I want to, I can’t stop the world and melt with you. I’ve found a few coping mechanisms that work well for me.

  • Eliminate distractions. My work area is my garden of zen. Indirect but natural sunlight illuminates it. My wife planted flowers just outside the window. A small fountain of serenity and a natural scent air freshener provide a light kiss of nature (yes, there’s a window, but for much of the summer in South Texas, no, it is not open). But most important is my noise-cancelling headphones on which I’m usually listening to pink noise. Everything in the world except my task — my beautiful, lone task — disappears in this oasis.
  • Make a schedule. Part of me hates this. I can tolerate confinement to a room better than confinement to a time box. But it is also the only effective way I’ve found to ensure I get everything done in a day that I must. It helps that I look at my schedule as a very strong guideline, but only a guideline. If I’m in flow, and I don’t want to stop working a task when its time is up, I sometimes choose to keep working and figure out how to catch up later. And when I do have to toss something out of my agenda, undone? Well… I cherish those moments.
  • Declare yourself. I make it clear to others, firmly but politely, that I will only do one thing at a time. My children know the phrase, “Yes, I will do that for you, but you’ll have to wait. You’re on my list.” The same is true at work. “Yes, but not right now” is an OK answer to a request for your time. (Hint: it is also a good idea, especially at work, to set an expectation on when, if not now.)

Ferris Bueller said life moves pretty fast, and that if you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it. And he said it 30 years ago! Life is far faster today — Ferrari fast. Monotasking is an effective way to not miss life. You still live it to its absolute fullest. You just do it one thing at a time.

* The newfangled term for this is “binge watching,” but in my day, we called it a “marathon” and enjoyed the irony of applying the name of an incredible test of physical fitness and endurance to a couch potato activity.

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