• Monotasking can make work seem more enjoyable. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Read this story without distraction (can you?)
Verena von Pfetten

The New York Times
2 May 2016 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 2 May 2016 - 3:40 PM

Stop what you’re doing.

Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing.

Mute your music. Turn off your television. Ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t.)

Just read. You are now monotasking.

Maybe this doesn’t feel like a big deal. Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.

Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anaemic resumes everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.

Earlier research out of Stanford University revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.

So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.

But monotasking, also referred to as single-tasking or unitasking, isn’t just about getting things done.

Not the same as mindfulness, which focuses on emotional awareness, monotasking is a 21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called “paying attention.”

“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered an interactive series called Infomagical, addressing information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task.”

Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “'Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.'”

Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practised.” She said, “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”

It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.

This is great news for the self-identified monotaskers out there.

“When I was looking for jobs and interviewing, they’d always want me to say, ‘I’m a great multitasker,'” said Jon Pack, a 42-year-old photographer in Brooklyn. “And I wouldn’t. My inability to multitask was seen as a negative. Now I can just say, ‘I am a monotasker.'”

And the way we work can have effects that kick in long after we clock out.

As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 study at the University of California, Irvine. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said.

A good sign you’ve task-switched yourself into a stupor: mindlessly scrolling Facebook at the end of the night or, as in Zomorodi’s case, looking at couches on Pinterest. “The sad thing is that I don’t get any closer to deciding which one I like,” she said.

But monotasking can also make work itself more enjoyable.

It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end.

“I can multitask — and do, of course; it’s kind of essential — but I prefer to do one thing at a time,” Hayley Phelan, a 28-year-old writer, wrote in an email. “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more torturous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”

Phelan isn’t imagining things. “Almost any experience is improved by paying full attention to it,” McGonigal said. “Attention is one way your brain decides: ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile?'”

It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.

This is why, according to McGonigal, the ability to monotask may be most valuable in social situations. “Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation,” she said.

Twenty-five thousand people participated in Zomorodi’s Infomagical project, which started with a single-tasking challenge. Upon completion, respondents agreed overwhelmingly that single-tasking was the No. 1 thing they wanted to carry into their post-Infomagical lives.

Parents of young children found it difficult for obvious reasons, as did people with jobs that permit them less control over their time. In those cases, try monotasking in areas where you can: conversations with your children, reading a book in bed before going to sleep, dinner or drinks with friends.

Even those with more flexibility can find themselves going to great lengths for a little bit of focus. Nick Pandolfi, who works at Google, once travelled to Sweden in what he called an “extreme” effort to monotask.

Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time.

“I had to write my business school application essays, and I was having no luck spending an hour here and there,” Pandolfi said. “I just wasn’t inspired. After spending a few days hiking in the Arctic by myself, I was able to get all of them done in just a few days.”

Transcontinental trips aside, Zomorodi stressed that it was important to find ways to practise. “Start by giving yourself just one morning a week to check in and remind yourself what it feels like to do one thing at a time,” she said.

Pandolfi and Phelan use exercise to aid them. “If I need to get through a big project and don’t want to get distracted by my inbox and the minutiae of the Web, I hop on the treadmill desk,” Pandolfi said. Phelan makes a point of running outside, weekly.

Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.

“Practise how you listen to people,” McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. “

So is monotasking a movement? “It’s not there yet,” Zomorodi said. “But I think it will be.”

If enough people pay attention to it, that is.

© 2016 New York Times News Service

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