I’m writing lakeside in the foothills of Southern Alberta where I’ve been camping for a handful of blissfully secluded days. There is a beach towel laid out beneath me and my faithful hound, Levi, is nestled beside me—his fur slick from an energetic dip in the water. Cross-legged beneath a canopy of trees, my skin is flushed and freckled from several days of soaking in uninterrupted sunshine. There is a faint mountain breeze skimming across the lake and all is quiet. It’s a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city living and an ideal setting in which to place pen to paper and delve into some long overdue writing.
This year has been an eventful one marked by a busyness that has been both exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. There has been a marked progression in areas of my life that were entirely unexpected. Now, for the first time in recent months, I have a moment in the welcome tumult of it all to sit back and reflect in a tranquil setting.
During the past six months, I’ve had a couple of short stories published by Canadian literary journals. I’ve had the opportunity to connect and collaborate with the creative teams of different magazines and have written soon-to-be published articles. I’ve returned to school on a part-time basis while maintaining my nine-to-five profession. I’ve started writing a screenplay along with a new collection of short stories. I’ve traveled, moved homes, adopted a dog, and had the pleasure of forming new friendships and creative partnerships.
Having undertaken these notable ventures has made me wonder—when it comes to personal goals, creative pursuits, professional aspirations, relationships, and commitments—is it possible to strike and maintain an equitable balance between each? Or is it better to focus wholeheartedly on one task at a time?
In the past, I would fault myself for not being able to more seamlessly flit between tasks. I used to view the zealous pursuit of a single goal as a negative. Now, however, I see the vitalizing quality that lies within such focus. I understand the enriching effects an all-consuming, soul-igniting passion has in other areas of a person’s life. By no means am I commending situations where a person becomes fixated on something to the detriment of their other responsibilities. Yet, within reason, it can be beneficial for a pursuit to eclipse other priorities. Particularly when doing so casts into shadow things we previously deemed as important, illuminating only that which matters most.
This time of sheltered self-reflection has inspired me to recommit myself to a process known as “monotasking” (also referred to as “single-tasking”). Monotasking is defined as the process of dedicating oneself to a given task by minimizing potential interruptions until the task is completed or after a predetermined period of time has elapsed. Monotasking contrasts with multitasking, which is the attempt to divide one’s focus among multiple ventures. A great deal of our cognitive power can be wasted by switching between tasks unnecessarily. Each time you reply to a text, check the status of your most recent Instagram post, glance at the muted episode of Queer Eye on Netflix, make a cup of coffee, put in a load of laundry—all while trying to read a chapter or two of a book—you are depleting your mental reserves. Quite often resulting in a subpar performance in multiple endeavors. Worst of all, the activity you initially set out to do (in this instance, making headway on your latest read) has been interrupted by a series of less relevant tasks.
Our attempts to be hyper-productive and accomplish multiple things simultaneously can compromise our ability to focus and be effective in pursuits that truly matter. There will be instances where you think you are being efficient; however, you’ve actually just split your attention amongst multiple duties. Thus, making yourself more susceptible to mistakes and hindering your ability to take any pleasure in the process. The result? You’ve overcooked dinner while having a phone conversation with your friend, during which you’ve trailed off countless times because you decided there was a high-priority load of laundry to be done, in which you’ve unknowingly mixed a rogue red sock with your whites. This is because when you multitask, very rarely are you actually accomplishing multiple tasks at once. Instead, your brain is rapidly shifting attention between each of the activities you are attempting, which is counterintuitive to real productivity.
Listen, I’m not saying monotasking is always possible. Sometimes life gets busy and you’re just barely keeping your head above the rising tide of tasks that must be accomplished that day. We also don’t have control over external stimuli that disrupt us (parents and pet owners, am I right?). Therefore, it’s all the more important to develop a monotasking mindset in areas of your life where you do have control. Whenever possible, learn to disconnect from the unnecessary and commit yourself solely to one project at a time. Engage fully in the process of seeing something through to completion. Rather than skimming the surface when it comes to concentration and engagement, delve a bit deeper. Be mindful of what you are doing. You’ll not only maximize the neural energy you are expending, but you’ll produce quality results.
If you’re unsure where to start in your newfound commitment to monotasking, begin with something as simple as tucking your phone away while you are reading, watching a show, or visiting with a friend. And I don’t mean tucking it away as in placing it on the table or couch next to you. I mean placing it in another room altogether. On silent.
Here are a few other simple, manageable ways to set your newfound monotasking regimen in motion, so you can do one thing at a time more completely, effectively, efficiently, and enjoyably:
- Set Aside Dedicated Time to Monotask
If you have a specific project or task that needs some serious focus, set aside sheltered time in which to do it. Try to choose a time of day when you are least likely to be disrupted, and establish a space in which to work. Block out time in your work calendar or set up a reoccurring appointment to establish defined times for accomplishing certain tasks. Routines can be invaluable in this regard. For instance, on weekdays I’ve been (forcibly) waking up at 5 a.m., fixing myself a cup of tea, tucking myself into my office, and spending an hour or so reading and writing. Admittedly, on certain days I do this begrudgingly, but I know this period of uninterrupted time is when I have a fresh mindset and am at my peak period for productivity.
- Turn Yourself Off to Technology
Turn off notifications or establish a schedule where you only check your email, text messages, and social media at certain times of the day. This will help to mediate the constant barrage of stimulus that technology provides, which, unless managed, can be unnecessarily disruptive and compromise our ability to focus, be present, and be effective in our daily activities.
- Prioritize Tasks
Identify two–three top priorities for the day and make sure you accomplish them first. Attending to your most important tasks during your brain’s prime time will help you be more focused and effective.
- Set Yourself to “Do Not Disturb”
Sheltered time is essential particularly when a task requires uninterrupted focus. Close your door, put on headphones, set your phone to silent, place a “Do Not Disturb” sign up, and let family, friends, and colleagues know that you’re unavailable for a while. Be possessive of your time.
Cluster certain tasks and tackle them together at specific times of the day. For instance, answer emails or text messages for 10- or 15-minute increments, several times a day. This habit is particularly beneficial when it comes to tasks that are typically distracting. Quite often, messages don’t merit an immediate reply and you rarely need to be instantly reachable. Rather than answer emails and texts one at a time, straightaway throughout the day, consolidate them by setting aside a dedicated response time.
- Follow Your Concentration Cycles
Perform a task for as long as your mental focus and ability to concentrate permit. Don’t fault yourself when your attention span starts to wane. It’s far better to have executed an activity for 15 focused minutes than to try and force an hour-long performance when your attention isn’t centered.
- Take a Break
From time to time, it’s necessary to rest and recharge your brain so that you can approach a task with renewed focus. Establish a pace and rhythm to your workflow by incorporating in scheduled breaks. By taking a break, I don’t mean watching an episode of your latest binge-worthy series on Netflix. I mean take a break where you go for a 20-minute walk, jog, stretch, or nap.
Monotasking isn’t for everyone, but for those of you who find your attention is being unnecessarily and ineffectively divided in a day, I hope that one or two of these tips will help you to master the art of monotasking, so you can effectively accomplish your pursuits (and those pesky day-to-day tasks) in a more meaningful and productive way.
Happy monotasking, friends!