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Mono-tasking, not multi-tasking: Reprioritising time management

by Oct 31, 2022Productivity, Time management0 comments

Is it possible to develop better time management skills post-pandemic?

We live in an age of chronic overstatement. Every week, a supposedly ‘game-changing’ event ‘upends’ the status quo … only to be forgotten by the same time next week and replaced with something shinier and more exciting.

But occasionally, something really does tip over the table and scatter the cards. Covid-19 was such an event. Reaching into virtually all aspects of our lives and instantly reorganising how we lived, the virus caused chaos and disruption on a level unseen in many decades.

One obvious example of this disruption is work. With many offices locked down, employees suddenly shifted to working from home. This was a boon for many, with billions of person-hours saved in travel time alone.

However, this radically changed situation comes new challenges. Chief among these is the necessity of reorganising the way we understand time in the office environment.

For most leaders, a typical working day is interlaced with a series of meetings, consultations and other events. As a result, the periods spent completing our own tasks are often tightly sandwiched between other commitments.

Away from the office, though, these ties seem to loosen. This level of freedom can be both liberating and daunting.

Working in this new environment can provide us with a different perspective on how we structure our day – and whether our previous system actually worked as intended.

In some cases, it’s clear that the old way wasn’t working.

Probably the most destructive idea of time management of all is the idea of ‘multi-tasking’, which became something of a leadership cult in the high-pressure pre-pandemic environment.

The basic idea is simple, appealing … and wrong. Here’s how it’s supposed to work.

By rapidly switching between several tasks in rapid succession, instead of plodding away at one, we become far more efficient.

There’s only one problem with this appealing idea – it doesn’t work. Our minds are simply ineffective at the rapid task-switching that true multi-tasking demands.

In fact, trying to multi-task destroys productivity instead of boosting it. Recent research shows that ‘a mere three distractions per hour can preclude you from getting anything else done’.[i]

Spending time away from the office due to Covid has encouraged many people to reconsider whether our frantically fragmented schedules are actually working for us. The virtues of long, sustained bouts of concentration – a core belief of mindfulness – offers us a chance to reconsider how we manage our time over the course of a day.

Instead of seeking to maximise the number of tasks we complete during each day – a key belief of multi-tasking – we may be better-served by considering the quality of the work accomplished.

This is ‘mono-tasking’, the practice of focusing on a single task at a given time. In the words of Paolo Cardini, Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design:

  • When was the last time you really enjoyed just the voice of your friend? [ii]

Cardini implies that when we do choose to completely invest our attention in something, we gain substantially from the richness of the experience. He implores his audience:

  • I push you to consider focusing on just one task – or maybe turning your digital senses totally off.

Of course, Cardini is not saying we should throw away all our electronics. He is suggesting, though, that we have already let them consume far too much of our lived experience. It’s taken away our mental breathing space.

Now, we have to reclaim it. And mono-tasking is one of the most effective ways of doing this.

Placing Cardini’s idea in a workplace context requires a genuine commitment to valuing the human qualities of work. In this context, mono-tasking could relate to the pleasure of thoroughly completing a complex, detailed task to the best of your abilities, rather than shoehorning it into the narrowest available gap.

According to the mono-tasking mindset, the traditional ‘Number of tasks completed per day’ idea of time management completely neglects those elements that can’t be neatly quantified on a spreadsheet. In a mono-tasking environment, structuring your day to accommodate workable spaces of sustained concentration should always remain front of mind.

Recognising the inherent value of deep concentration, and its importance in time management, requires a sense of humility about the limits of our technologies. We are far more than computers, and our time management techniques should reflect this distinction.

Yes, we have created electronic tools that have streamlined or eliminated many unrewarding tasks. Yet we can’t gain a full, honest picture of technology without considering its drawbacks alongside its benefits, and doing everything we can to avoid them.

At Thinka, we recognise that effective time management rests on seeing our digital devices as assistants, not bosses. If we think carefully about the purpose of these machines, we can use their capacities to secure the substantial stretches of time needed to complete every element of a vital task … without being jolted out of the moment by the very next ‘push’ notification.

[i] https://www.fastcompany.com/3015251/monotasking-is-the-new-multitasking

[ii] https://youtu.be/0YNeyBANrTI