Team Management

Here’s Why You Should be Monotasking—Not Multitasking

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
An african-american woman looks at a computer

Maybe you think you’re good at multitasking. But maybe you’re wrong. 

Extensive research shows that multitasking is highly ineffective. In fact, people who believe multitasking helps them get more done tend to be worse at multitasking than people who prefer to do one thing at a time. Data shows that “great multitaskers” have more trouble focusing, organizing their thoughts, and weeding out irrelevant information. 

Studies also reveal that multitasking can make you, in the moment, less intelligent. David Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work says, “When people (try to) do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8-year-old.” Why? For one thing, that’s how we’re wired. Our brain requires between 15 and 20 minutes to fully transition from one difficult mental task to another. During that transition time, tasks take longer. We’re more likely to make mistakes and feel overwhelmed. 

In other words: when you try to multitask, you don’t function at a level anywhere near your peak performance. 

So, what should you do? Try Monotasking.

The power of monotasking

In simple terms, monotasking means giving one task your full attention and completing it—or at the very least completing a predetermined portion of a larger task—before moving on to the next thing.

This sounds easy enough in theory but it’s difficult to put into practice, especially for small business owners who naturally wear multiple hats. But it’s not impossible. Just ask Thatcher Wine, the owner of Juniper Books and the author of Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better.

“It turns out I’m a terrible multitasker,” Thatcher says. “Even though I always thought I could keep my business going, be a great parent, and juggle multiple tasks at the same time… over time I realized I was at my most creative and successful when I put my full attention on one thing at a time.”

What Wine describes is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Efficient people get things done; effective people also get the right things done, and to the best of their ability. While multitasking may allow you to cross multiple items off your to-do list, monotasking can help you cross the right things off your to-do list—those that will make the biggest difference in your professional or personal life. 

Sure, you can answer every email as soon as it comes in… but is that as important as crafting that killer sales proposal for a potentially major customer?

How to get better at monotasking

Exercise your monotasking muscles 

According to Wine, because we all have so much practice switching from task to task, our “focus” muscles have atrophied. So the process starts with exercising those muscles. Wine recommends starting with relatively short twenty-minute blocks. Try reading, listening, creating something, or playing. But just choose one area of focus. The goal is to place your full attention on whatever you’re doing. This will, in time, strengthen your monotasking muscles.

Weave in relatively mindless tasks

While it can take 15 to 20 minutes to fully transition from one task to another, that time can still be productive. I like to do things that don’t require much thought to “cleanse my monotasking palate.”  I use this time to do things like organize files, write thank-you notes, grab a snack, or take a walk. As Wine says: “The goal is to do great work. If doing your best work involves taking a few breaks, do it.” 

 Schedule at least one Most Important Task (MIT)

Every day, most of us have at least one thing we really need to get done. It’s the one thing that drives your business forward, solves a major problem, or resolves a conflict. Whatever your MIT might be, actively schedule a time to tackle it. Then eliminate potential distractions. Switch off notifications. Let people know that you’ll be busy. Do everything you can to create an environment conducive to deep work. When you’re finished, you won’t just have accomplished something important; you’ll also carry the resulting productivity momentum into the rest of your day.

Schedule monotasking when you’re at your best  

I focus best—and have more energy to reap the benefits of that focus—early in the morning. Just before lunch? Not so much. 

Think about when your focus and energy tend to be at their peak and leverage those times to work on one task. Not only will you get better work done faster, you’ll also strengthen your monotasking muscles more quickly.

Create a monotasking environment

While you probably don’t think of it this way, everything we do “trains” people to treat us a certain way. If I always respond to emails within minutes—no matter how non-urgent those emails might be—then people will expect me to respond immediately. If I drop whatever I’m doing (no matter how important) whenever someone “needs” something, people will always expect my immediate attention. 

In many cases, our actions give other people permission to keep us from working the way we work best. That’s why a friend of mine created an account for “urgent” emails; his employees know he will respond to those immediately. Non-urgent emails? He responds to those by the end of the day, when he’s finished with deeper work. Another friend uses a closed door as a signal that he is focusing on something important. His employees know not to interrupt unless there truly is an emergency. 

In short, think about things that make monotasking harder, and do your best to eliminate those things.

Because the only way to do your best work is to give yourself the time, and space, and focus to actually do your best work.

Updated: February 9, 2022

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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