The video plays, preceded by an advert. Standard. Instantly, your fingers hover above the mouse ready to click to another tab, simultaneously you glance at your phone to see if it can offer any distraction… because you can’t possibly just sit and waste those 15 seconds while the ad plays, can you?
Sound familiar? It’s bound to. Because modern life has been kitted out for multitaskers. Distraction is available in every direction.
But this slavish need to do 10 things at once, and the inability to really focus down on just one, is affecting our concentration spans, the quality of our work and even our enjoyment of the life.
Experts have warned that this constant ‘task shifting’ is messing with our brains. Primary researcher on the Stanford Multitasking Project Eyal Ophir said: “Every task you do competes for your mental resources, even once you think it’s no longer relevant. The more competing tasks you take on, the more interference you must overcome to fully dedicate yourself to what’s really important.”
So how can you say no to the cult of multitasking? Well, by turning to the growing trend to monotask.
It’s easier said than done, so here are some easy life tweaks to turn you from frazzled multitasker, to cool, calm and collected monotasker:
1. Get a handle on your email
Instead of refreshing your email every few minutes, set aside 10 minutes at the start of each hour for checking in with new mails. And have a strict system for dealing with them:
Reply instantly to any that don’t need research or work, delete anything unwanted and flag anything that requires effort to return to at a designated time slot.
Then spend the last hour of your day (or a different time slot if that works better in your routine) working through the more involved emails.
Be strict with yourself. If you’re concerned that others are waiting on you response, drop them a line back to let them know that you’re busy but will get back to them soon.
2. Try Shot Clock
This app exists to help us easily-distracted goldfish. It’s a time manager that allows you to assign yourself tasks with timed deadlines. It helps you organise your day and warns when you’re going off piste. Plus the counting down clock makes you feel you’re racing against time - a surprisingly effective motivator.
3. Make an exceptions list
OK we hereby give you permission to multitask some things. This may sound like cheating, but our brains are complicated and some tasks need to be livened up. Cleaning the house? Why not listen to a podcast at the same time? Folding the washing? You can put some TV on, sure.
But when you’re deciding to distract, have a real think about the task at hand. Running may seem to automatically go with listening to music, but why not try mono-running? Many people find it’s the perfect way to clear their head.
4. Minimalise your life
In her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Japanese lifestyle guru Marie Kondo explains that when doing a big tidy, you should really pay attention to which items you’re choosing to keep and which you’re giving up. And to do this you shouldn’t be distracted with TV, radio or even music to really get the benefit.
In fact it’s been something of a movement for a few years, with books like Kondo’s, the Minimalists and Stuffocation advocating we get rid of things to avoid distraction and wave goodbye to consumerism.
Obviously some things are essential, while others hold sentimental value, so don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But do clear away physical distractions from your working area, at least. Just have the essentials near you to allow you to concentrate.
5. Drop the fear you’re ‘not doing enough’
If you’ve been a multitasker for years (as anyone who’s grown up with the internet will be), don’t beat yourself up for ‘not doing enough’.
Yes you could have a TED talk on in the background. Yes you could just quickly scroll through your Twitter timeline while that video loads… but you don’t have to. It’s a real mindset shift and will take time and effort to get used to. So if you feel anxious about it initially that’s totally normal. Engage your self-control drive and force yourself not to check your phone.
6. Try a productivity-boosting browser blocker
It’s well known that as well as the giver of all info, interest and entertainment, the internet is also the taker away of actually getting anything done. But there are plenty of website blockers out there that offer a variety of ways to keep you off Facebook/Reddit/Twitter for designated periods of time.Some will even bounce you out if you spend too many minutes on pre-designated websites in a certain time period.
Some we find most effective are:
7. Do the hardest things first
Willpower is a finite resource, so if you’re forcing yourself to stay focused, make sure you do your hardest tasks first. Not only will they be out of the way sooner, but you can also bask in the glow of achievement for the rest of the day.
8. Make realistic to do lists
One of the reasons we manically try to multitask is to ‘get everything done’. But usually we still fall short. This is often due to unrealistic expectations. As recommended by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, you can probably only fully complete three tasks in a day, so don’t let your to-do list stretch to 20.
Make a new list each day with the three most important tasks on it. If you do complete them, go to your master list and tick off any more you have time for. But make sure you do them one at a time.
9. Single-tab it
This may seem impossible but challenge yourself to a set period of time each day where you only have one tab up on your computer. This forces you to work through things one at a time and will stop you getting distracted by the glittering titles of time-wasting websites. If you’re really struggling, try using the Great Suspender Google Chrome extension which will save all your tabs in one handy list, while you work on just one.
Just try it…
It may seem a complete brain overhaul, but the evidence is there - successful monotasking means you can get more done, even in a short period of time, and really engage with those activities, conversations and tasks that you’d have done on autopilot in a multitasking world.
After a while you might even be able to sit down and read a book for more than two minutes. Wouldn’t that be nice?