Mindfulness and the Case for Monotasking

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For many of us, there is simply no way to avoid multitasking. The ability to juggle priorities and take on more than a single task at once is a requirement of many jobs, especially in the nonprofit sector where employees often wear many hats.

As a community manager here at Idealist, I shift between a number of rotating duties throughout the day. So when I read articles that point out the way multitasking burdens our brains and reduces our effectiveness, I don’t know whether to laugh about it or put my head down on my desk and cry (or both, if I’m multitasking!).

From the perspective of mindfulness, which we’ve explored here and here, doing one thing at a time and being present with that task (sometimes called monotasking) is ideal. Tackling a single task at a time allows you to get “in the zone”. While this expression usually applies to the peak performance of an athlete, you might also experience it as a sense of feeling connected to your task at hand.

The Case for Monotasking

Allowing your attention to dwell on a single task at a time can also help us feel more appreciative and engaged. Studies show that when we don’t allow ourselves the time and space to be present with a single task, we are more likely to make mistakes, our memory may suffer, and we’re likely to feel on high alert, which our body experiences as stress.

While it may be ideal to focus on a single task until it’s complete, the reality is that most of us will have to grapple with a number of pressing demands throughout the day. Since it might not be practical to seek a job that only has a single task involved, how can we approach a growing to-do list without fracturing our attention and dropping the ball?

In mindfulness practice, we stay with a single, relatively subtle object of awareness for a lengthy period of time. We train our attention to rest on a single thing for longer periods of time without faltering. It also helps us feel less reactive to the things that might demand our attention so that we can choose how to respond.

Mindfulness on the Job

Using mindfulness as a lens, below are some suggestions for changing your relationship to those numerous things that need doing.

1. Train your mind to focus by bringing it into the present

Studies show that multitaskers are less likely to retain information in working memory, When this happens, it’s likely that problem solving and creative tasks will be harder to complete. If your job requires frequent multitasking, consider spending some time each day going against that grain by sitting and focusing on a single thing.

Mindful breathing is one way to do this. Breathe consciously, allowing your mind to notice the feeling of breathing without doing anything else. Another way to work this sort of focus into your day is to try out mindful eating. When eating, just eat! Don’t check your phone, don’t read on your computer, don’t have a work-related conversation. This might not be practical every day, but try it with a snack. Really allowing yourself to be present with the flavors and texture of the food you’re eating can train your mind to appreciate what’s happening in the present.

2.The pause

Give yourself a moment to pause between tasks, even when you are moving rapidly between them. This way, you can consciously move between tasks rather than try to do them all at once. Psychologists call this set shifting, and it refers to the ability to move flexibly between tasks and prioritize according to changing goals. To do this, bring your full attention to each task, and to the shift between them.

Pause for a moment, allowing yourself to move with intention. It doesn’t need to be a lengthy break- even bringing your attention to a single breath can allow you to cultivate mental agility and cognitive flexibility, which will allow you to switch between tasks without mistakes.

3.Bring intention to your work

Do you multitask because you have an incredible amount of work to do and you’re attempting to get it all done in with limited time? Or are you doubling up on tasks because one of them isn’t very engaging? If a boring task is the culprit, try staying engaged in other ways rather than splitting your focus. This can include reframing the task by getting some perspective on the context, something we talked about here.

You can also try bringing fresh eyes to a rote task you’ve done a million times. You might feel like you can sort a spreadsheet while simultaneously talking to a colleague about a separate project, but you could wind up missing important details. Prioritizing in a purposeful way can ensure you’re responding to what’s actually happening rather than getting caught up in a mental traffic jam.

These are just a couple of the ways you can change your relationship to multitasking. It’s also helpful to know that scientists have been looking at where our drive to do more than one thing at once comes from. Researcher Zheng Wang points to the fact that habitual multitasking satisfies emotional needs and makes us feel better, even if it results in shoddy work.  In the end, taking an honest look at the way you approach your to-do list is about being conscious of where and how you use your attention. Next month we’ll delve into the intentional use of attention in more depth. Let us know about the obstacles you face when trying to be present with one task!

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About Author

When Caroline Contillo is not supporting Idealists as part of the Community Engagement team, she teaches mindfulness meditation at non-profits and community centers in NYC. Previously, she worked at Businessweek Online and The Interdependence Project, a secular Buddhist meditation center.

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