Monotasking: Productivity’s Silver Bullet?


About ten years ago, I experienced what I can only describe as a complete, all-out functional crisis. A state of utter paralysis induced by an emerging awareness that, although I was working longer hours and “doing” more each day than the day before, I fell more and more behind. It was as if I was in quicksand and the more frantically I tried to dig out, the deeper I sank. At the end of each day, after mostly doing whatever my inbox told me to do, I would stare, bleary-eyed, at my computer screen or my to-do list wondering if I had really accomplished anything at all.

During this same period, I started having trouble remembering names, errands I needed to run, calls I had to return, sometimes even what I’d eaten for lunch that day. But the final straw that brought it all to a crisis point was when I realized that I was beginning most emails and conversations with some sort of apology for not getting back to them earlier, for the delay in the project timeline, for the oversight in the product specs, for forgetting their birthday. I saw so clearly that I could not continue to live as this scattered, frenetic human being, but I had no idea how to regain some semblance of control in my life. Lucky for me, someone else did.

Scott, a friend and colleague at the time who was an eye-witness to my near meltdown state, told me about a book he thought would help me find clarity and refocus my priorities. The book was Getting Things Done, by David Allen, which I am sure is well-known to many these days. But at that time, the concept of auditing my life, setting priorities, goals, and next actions, and then maintaining focus on those important things by controlling all the various communication outlets constantly shouting out information, was nothing short of a revelation. I followed the Getting Things Done (GTD) mantra to the letter and, soon enough, I was no longer doing what the top of my Outlook inbox told me to do but, instead, was able to focus on projects, product development, client proposals, and other priority items. And after about 3 months of diligently sticking to the process, I felt like I was back in the driver’s seat of my life.


I would love to say that this turning point closed the book on my productivity challenges. But unfortunately, GTD, like any other effective system, requires consistency and habit. And there are an awful lot of distractions out there in the world that seem to have a knack for knocking me out of the saddle. While I did manage to pull myself back on a few times, it felt like I could never regain that initial Zen-like clarity I experienced when I first implemented Allen’s GTD practice into my life.

And it is pretty clear that I am not the only one relapsing. There seem to be more books, new methodologies, and “game-changing” behavioral models promising the to cure the woes of our overworked, constantly-distracted, always-busy-yet-less-productive world. And lately, there has been a lot of talk about Monotasking, which is quite literally just the idea of doing one thing at a time. Not an incredibly disruptive concept, right? I believe, though, that this word is suddenly getting so much play (from a recent articles in the Sunday New York Times to the TED stage) because of the growing consensus that the modern workplace is designed for multitasking.

And there is no shortage of information out there on the perils of multitasking. The charges against multitasking include everything from lowering workplace productivity to actually lowering our IQ. Yet many people believe that multitasking is foundational to the way we work and communicate today. We work on multiple monitors, toggle constantly between a literal index of open browser tabs, read and respond to Slack messages while on conference calls, and have specific ring tones or text message alerts for our bosses, spouses, or the babysitter. All, presumably, to help us manage life’s competing priorities and get the most done each day that we possibly can.

However, experts agree that multitasking is more often diluting our productivity. According to one such expert, an MIT neuroscientist named Earl Miller, the human brain is not at all designed to multitask. He is quoted in Daniel J. Levitin’s research-laden missive, Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain (view full article here):

When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.

That cognitive cost is exacerbated by the psychic load of our 24/7 accessibility and the distracting knowledge (that grows with each new IM alert or email ping) of one, then another, then another task competing for priority and attention. But what are we supposed to do? Just opt out?


Rather than viewing all of this as a stalemate