The miracle of monotasking

Image credit: Timothy Large

Close Facebook, ignore the noise outside, turn your phone off (unless, of course, you’re looking at this on your mobile) and read my article. All the way through. Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

Because if you do, you will have mastered the art of monotasking. Different from mindfulness, which encourages emotional engagement with your actions and environment, monotasking is about paying attention to the tasks you complete and, to quote that great philosopher Bob the Builder, “getting the job done”.

In our hectic Cambridge lives, multitasking may seem like the only way to keep on top of immense workloads. We have forced our minds to handle numerous things at once. I can almost guarantee that you don’t just eat breakfast, but shovel down a bowl of cornflakes while watching the news, reading through supervision notes and replying to a text, as well as thinking about that day’s lecture and sports fixtures. Your poor brain! Juggling about eight jobs simultaneously may seem like the only solution, but is it really the most productive path?

Most definitely not, thinks psychologist Linda Blair. When we focus on one task at a time, she argues, “we’re faster, more accurate, and it’s much more rewarding”. Multitasking crams our heads with various, incongruous thoughts, creating a complex crossroad instead of a smoothly cruising through one job. It is such ‘smooth cruises’, whereby we invest all our energy into a single task, that provide the way to achievement and satisfaction. As the Latin writer Publilius Syrus aphorised, “to do two things at once is to do neither.” Focusing on an individual task, whether it be planning an essay or doing the washing up, and wholly dedicating yourself to that (not planning the essay and surfing Youtube…) allows you to perceive the job’s journey from start to finish, thus making its quick completion much easier.

This is hard, I know. Be it WhatsApp or YouTube, technology is just so tempting. As I write this article, I have my emails open, a software update whirring on my iPad, and my phone incessantly pinging with messages and notifications. “I’ll just check this email”, I keep saying to myself, even though I know I won’t ‘just’ reply to the email, but will inevitably respond to another, follow a link in a third and, while I’m at it, probably check Facebook too… These intrusions entirely rupture our train of thought. Even the smallest of diversions becomes a major distraction; with one American study finding that interruptions of just three seconds can double the number of mistakes people make. Of course, I am not suggesting a militarised work schedule devoid of all breaks. Taking down-time is essential for efficiency when we work (and for our sanity!), so long as when we work, that genuinely is what we do.

Spending a couple of phone-less hours in the library will bring bundles of rewards. Not only will you work more effectively, but you will feel good. By allowing us to trace a single task through to its conclusion, monotasking makes it easy to acknowledge our accomplishments. Now for the science-y bit. Each time we make satisfactory ‘ticks’ on that To-Do list, we get a positive hit of dopamine. This is the chemical that regulates pleasure in brain, and enables us to feel joy and fulfilment. Multitasking, on the other hand, tangles the mind with multiple thoughts, leaving us with the sense of going round in circles and scowling furiously at a work pile that just won’t dwindle.

Monotasking: it’s mood-boosting and magnificently productive. Mastering it will change your life and leave you with the glorious thing that always seems to elude Cambridge students: free time. Right, now that I can mark ‘TCS article’ off my list (cue elaborate tick), I’m going to have a cup of tea and then write my essay…and actually write my essay.

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