For pleasure and profit, try monotasking

Today we’re going to talk about monotasking.

(Oh dear, I’ve lost you.)

You’re already familiar with multi-tasking.  That’s where you watch TV, text your many BFFs, eat dinner, do the laundry, and walk the dog.  All at the same time.

Being an accomplished multi-tasker may be something you take pride in.  It’s how you earn your productivity stripes.  It’s how you keep up with the Jones – and the Smiths, and the McFarlands, and the Garcias.  It’s easy.

On the other hand, monotasking – paying attention to and doing one thing at a time – is hard.  It also represents a wholesale cultural shift. 

Think about it.  Over the past couple of decades our ability to multi-task has grown exponentially.  First came desktop computers, and then, in rapid succession, came digital assistants, smart phones, and zillions of apps designed to make your life simpler and allow you to accomplish so much more.

And they have, in their way.

Now we carry the world’s accumulated knowledge in our pockets.  Any question we have we can find the answer almost immediately, if not sooner.

We can keep track of our expenses, check our emails, talk or text friends and business associates at any time of the day or night.

And we do.

Multi-tasking has become so ingrained in us that doing many things at once is the new normal.

We are so attuned to its many pleasures that multi-tasking is a habit we can’t break.  We are addicted.

At this point let’s acknowledge that it’s easy to feel as though we are incredibly more productive as a result of our ability to multi-task.  We absolutely can get more done.

But at what cost?

A recent study found that interruptions, even as brief as a couple seconds, doubled the errors made in an assigned task.

So while productivity may increase, accuracy and efficiency actually decreases as a result of multi-tasking.  In fact, our gadgets and all the apps on them are designed to keep us from monotasking.

According to Manoush Zomorodi, the host of WNYC’s “Note to Self” podcast, “We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.”

The reality is that multi-tasking is here to stay.  Because of the ubiquity of personal computing we can’t avoid it even if we wanted to.

But there is much to be said for monotasking, as well.  Rather than being constantly distracted by whatever figurative butterfly wanders across our path, the ability to focus and make real progress is pleasurable in its own right.

“Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” says Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Willpower Instinct.  “Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting?  Is this worthwhile?  Is this fun?’ “

Unfortunately, we’ve reached the point where monotasking is a skill that must be practiced.

So put away that multi-tasking crack machine called your phone for an hour each day and enjoy the pleasure of your loved one’s company.

Gather your friends and family and have a real conversation instead of one that’s digitized.

When there’s something important you need to get done, try doing it and it alone.

At first, as you develop your monotasking chops, this will feel awkward.  The pull of your phone will be almost unbearable.  But resist you must.

Over time your social instincts will overcome your philandering attention span, and you will become reacquainted with the gift of gab.  You will once again enjoy the simple pleasures of a job well done – even if it is just weeding your garden.

Of course, there is always the danger of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.  You may become so proficient at monotasking, as I am, that in the name of your single task other, more important, tasks go begging.

As in all things moderation is key.

Do not neglect your blog, for example, to the service of unpacking.  Or your job, to the service of your blog.

But I digress.


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