Why multitask when you can monotask?

Healthy Living

Why multitask when you can monotask?

A three-second distraction – the time it takes to turn from this story to glance at your phone, and then turn back – can set you back a lot longer.

Plenty of studies prove this.

One has a title that says it all: “Momentary interruptions can derail the train of thought.”

Another, released early this year from University of California, Irvine, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talks specifically about the lure and disaster of online multitasking in the workplace. This one is titled “Neurotics Can’t Focus,” as if to drive the point home harder.

In other words, if you can’t focus on one thing and finish it before you’re distracted by something else, you probably have a problem.

Turns out many of us have a problem: We think we’re getting lots done because we’re multitasking.

But we’re not.

The truth is, when you multitask, you often aren’t doing lots of things at the same time. Instead, you’re switching among all of them, and transitioning from one to the other makes you terribly inefficient.

Your brain has a limited ability to do things simultaneously. This means it needs time to move into the new task, and then it needs time to get back to where you were in the old task. Let’s not even get into multitasking that requires physical movement too – like walking from your desk to your colleague’s, and then back. Even more time wasted! (Instead, take a walking break between tasks.

The new way of being productive is called “monotasking.”

Sounds boring, and in a sense it is: You do only one thing at a time, without distraction. In comparison, jumping among activities is exciting – so much stimulation.

But give it a try before you knock it.

“You can get better work done and get it done more quickly than if you were doing several things at once,” says Mark Powell, a health and wellbeing consultant for Unum.

A few ways to monotask at work:

  • Disable the function that lets incoming emails automatically pop up on your computer screen. Instead, check email periodically.
  • For a few hours, place a sign on your desk that says “no interruptions please.” Use the sign when you actually need a few hours without interruption to get something done.
  • If you don’t use your cell phone for business, turn off your ringer when you get to work and place your phone face down. Don’t look at the phone until your meal break, and then not again until your work day ends. Even the sound of it ringing sucks up brain space. So does looking at a blinking screen of texts, even if you don’t read them.


Journalist Mitra Malek has taught yoga regularly since 2006. She was a senior editor for Yoga Journal  and still does research for the magazine on wellness, fitness and nutrition. Learn more at www.mitramalek.com.

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