Get It Done Strategy: Monotasking

(Laura’s note: I’m on maternity leave, and while I’ll be blogging occasionally over the next few weeks, I wanted to take the opportunity to share guest posts from some of my favorite bloggers. Enjoy!)

by Camille Noe Pagán

I don’t know about you, but there are days in which I operate like a headless chicken: Outline magazine story; catch up on RSS feed; shop online for birthday gift; go back to magazine story; get inspired and write 200 words on my WIP; feed the baby, and while doing it, realize I have a deadline that I forgot about; pick up my iPhone to email myself a reminder and end up listening to voicemails I overlooked yesterday.

Is it any surprise that I don’t get anything substantial done on days like that?

Multi-tasking is supposed to be the superpower of busy women everywhere. And sure, there are times—think checking email while jiggling a baby and eating lunch—when it comes in handy. But when it comes to true productivity, multitasking just doesn’t work.

I realized this last year while writing a story about monotasking for Forbes. Among the evidence, a study from Stanford University that revealed that people who regularly attempted to do multiple tech-oriented tasks at once—think e-mailing, IM-ing, watching TV and/or browsing the Internet—were less able to pay attention, had worse memories and switched tasks with more difficulty than people who monotasked.

“Even those who appear to multitask well usually feel stressed as a result,” time management guru Julie Morgenstern told me. “It has a wear-and-tear effect on the brain, and people who do this need tons of reparative time. They’re often the type who can’t do anything but watch TV at the end of the day, or spend the weekend in bed.”

Plus, “multitasking can be an act of procrastination,” pointed out Laura Stack, author of Leave the Office Earlier. “It’s essentially a bad habit. People hope that whatever they’re distracting themselves with will be more interesting than what they’re [supposed to be] doing.”

I’m getting better at doing one thing at a time–but with so many different tasks (and, ahem, little people) clamoring for my attention, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a daily struggle. Here’s what helps me put one foot in front of the other instead of skipping back and forth:

  • Making a prioritized list—and sticking to it. I try not to move to the next task until the one before it has been crossed off my list.
  • Using a timer. It’s easier for me to log off of Twitter and steer clear of email if I know I’m only doing the task in front of me for a set amount of time.
  • Entering full screen mode when I’m writing, which stops me from habitually checking email.
  • Minimizing distractions. When I’m with the kids, I try not to have my phone with me–it’s too easy to get sucked into email or other work-related stuff. While I’m working, I close the door to my office and turn off my ringer unless I’m expecting a call.
  • Doing it over and over. Focus is a mental muscle that you have to develop, especially if yours has been weakened by years of multitasking. As Morgenstern informed me, “It gets easier when you realize that you can get so much more done—and in less time—when you monotask.”

Do you struggle with monotasking? What helps you stay on task?

Camille Noe  Pagán is a journalist (O, Forbes.com, Parade, Glamour), mom to two kids and author of the novel The Art of Forgetting.

One thought on “Get It Done Strategy: Monotasking

  1. I am so guilty of keeping the phone with me all the time. Even though nothing coming in is more important than what I’m actually, you know, doing in the real world at that particular instance.

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