Why Unitasking Might Seem as Challenging as Unicycling | The BridgeMaker

Why Unitasking Might Seem as Challenging as Unicycling

By on Jan 07, 2010


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There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.. – Lord Chesterfield

Article written by BridgeMaker contributor Ali Hale. Please visit her at Aliventures.com.

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For years, the buzz-word has been “multitask”. In our have-it-all, have-it-now world, everyone’s encouraging us to juggle three tasks at once. Our bosses and colleagues expect us to be constantly available by email and phone – but they’re also expecting that hefty report finished by close of businness on Friday. If we have kids, we want to play with them – but we also need to get the laundry and the dishes and the other chores done.

Modern technology encourages us to multitask frantically. Tabbed browsers, computers with ever-increasing processor power, social websites which fracture our attention, emails which arrive on our mobile … all of this drags us into a whirl of a world where it’s hard to stop and breathe.

The Lure of Multitasking

I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ll open a new browser window because I’m impatient waiting half a dozen seconds for a page to load. I often find myself on Twitter or in my email when I’m supposed to be focusing on something I’m writing. I’ll start on some simple task, spot something else that needs doing in the flat, and end up forgetting what I was supposed to be getting on with.

Plus, standing up for unitasking isn’t always that sexy. As a freelancer and blogger, I’ve got peer support behind me; I’ve read dozens of blog posts about focus, productivity and avoiding distractions. But two years ago, when I was working in technical support and testing, interruptions were constant. We were supposed to reply to all forum postings within an hour, making it difficult to work on sustained tasks. Waiting for files to upload, download or compile in various ways also meant that attention had to be fractured.

And I can see why multitasking is attractive. We want to make the most of every hour. We’re pressured – by work, by the media, even by our families – to keep cramming in more. We hate to admit the simple, obvious truth: that whatever we do, there are only 24 hours in the day, and we can only truly focus on one task at any one time.

Writing Needs to be Unitasked

I’m a writer. In a typical work day, I’ll produce somewhere upwards of 4,000 words – some mingling of blog posts, fiction, and ebooks in progress. I’d bet that, though you might not be a writer, some percentage of your work or your personal projects involve writing.

Here’s the truth, though. It’s simply not possible to write a blog post and check your email at the same time. While I’m writing this post, if I decide to see what’s happening on Twitter, or check my email, I have to stop typing and switch windows. I’m no longer writing.

(In fact, in a moment of vivid unitasking example, I had to stop mid-sentence there to talk to my fiancé about our plans for an evening meal…)

If I’m interrupted – or if I interrupt myself – in the middle of a train of thought, I might even forget what was coming next when I get back to the material.

I know from experience that if I break my flow to check emails, to tidy up, to open the post or do some other distracting task, it’s harder to get back into what I’m writing. I lose time on the transitions – Charlie Gilkey calls this “cognitive overhead” (a brilliant phrase) – the price you pay each time you switch task.

So how do I maintain my focus when writing?

#1 – Limit Your Projects

On a big level, try to limit the number of different projects, goals or commitments you have.

I find that it’s easiest to stay focused when I don’t have too many writing projects. This lets me spend large chunks of time each week on one single project. All too often, I have too many projects running concurrently (I have to admit that this month would be a good example!) This can lead to fractured attention, with my thoughts darting to different projects instead of staying on the one at hand.

If this is a particular issue for you, you may enjoy a piece I’ve written on Meeting Your Goals: Getting Focused.

#2 – One Thing At A Time

On a daily level, I prioritize what I’m working on by picking three or four things to do in order. Today, for instance, I wrote a blog post for Diet Blog, then a post for my own blog Aliventures, a post for You on a Diet, and only then did I let myself open my email!

If you have a long to-do list, it’s easy to jump about from task to task. Make a definite decision about what you’re doing first, second and third, then tackle them in that order – and don’t move on until each is complete.

#3 – Remove Distractions

Some bloggers write directly into a browser window. I use Word – because having a browser open makes it just too tempting to pull up extra tabs. When I’m writing my novel, I always use a program called DarkRoom. It’s a full-screen program, so I have nothing at all in front of me except the text I’m working on.

If you’re really struggling to maintain focus on one thing and one thing alone:

  • Switch off your internet connection.
  • Work in a library or coffee shop, or take your laptop into an empty room at work.
  • Set a timer for 10 (or 20 or 30) minutes, and tell yourself you’ll focus on the task at hand until the buzzer goes.
  • Use pen and paper, or read a printed book or journal rather than an ebook – and notice how different the quality of your concentration is.

If, like me, you grew up in a world of computers and mobile phones, you’ll probably find that unitasking feels weird. Perhaps not quite as weird as unicycling, but odd all the same. Keep at it, and don’t worry if you fall down a few times. Just pick yourself up again: it will get easier.

(And share your tips in the comments!)

Ali Luke is a writer and writing coach. She blogs about writing and life at Aliventures. You can find out more about Ali here.

  • C Louise, I do exactly the same – Dark Room (green text on black) and instrumental music (currently Apocalyptica playing various Metallica tracks on cellos… yes, sounds weird, works for me!)

    Evan, great point. Yes, multitasking appears to be a nasty corporate creation, rather than a sensible human way to work.

    Nathalie, cheers! I’ve been writing an essay this week, for the first time in about four years, and I was struck by how much more “distractable” I am now … I’m sure I never used to feel the need to check my email so much, and Twitter didn’t exist back then …

    Lorraine, I know just what you mean. It can be almost addictive — I suppose the quick “rewards” (entertainment, a buzzing sense of busyness) of distractions encourage us to multitask.

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