Consider the rise and joy of unitasking

When we try to multitask all we’re doing is becoming less efficient

Take a second to put down your phone and take a break from anything you’re currently working on. Really, do it. I dare you. You’re about to experience the joys of unitasking. 

What is unitasking? Unitasking is the simple art of doing one thing at a time. It’s the opposite of multitasking. It’s making the choice to focus on a single activity without concern for what’s happening outside that activity. It’s about removing distractions and the accompanying stress. 

In an effort to be authentic—and to show you that I, too, have not yet earned my unitasking black belt—I’ll admit that I began writing this piece in a fragmented working environment with lots of open tabs, putting it down when something more pressing came along. I even wrote some of it on my smartphone, in my parked car with my toddler asleep in the backseat. Neither of these environments seemed appropriate for writing about this topic (nor for my sanity). Therefore, in order to practice what I preach, rest assured that I am now sitting at a desk with my computer, a couple of relevant books, and a glass of water. Already I feel calmer, more focused, and ready to work. Let the unitasking begin.

The myth of multitasking  

It’s often thought that doing two or more tasks simultaneously is not only possible, but also more efficient. Talking on the phone and typing an email. Reading content in two browsers at the same time. Surfing the net in a meeting. Think again. 

According to Psychology Today contributor, Nancy K. Napier, our brain cannot take on two tasks simultaneously; instead our brain switches quickly from one task to another. There is a start/stop process each time we switch from one task to the next, so multitasking may be more appropriately called switch-tasking. Napier argues that this leads to inefficiencies, mistakes, and unnecessarily saps us of energy. Neuroscientist Daniel Levinson agrees and explains that the attention-shifting process needs an energy source. He explains that the neurochemical switch that makes multitasking possible uses up finite nutrient resources in the brain. Try this quick-and-easy test to demonstrate that we’re really not very good at accomplishing two tasks at once. 

Draw 2 horizontal lines on a sheet of paper. 

On the first line write ‘I am a great multitasker’

On the second line write the numbers 1 through 20

This probably took you a relatively short time to complete, but try this test again switching between the two lines (start on the first line with ‘I’ and then the second line with ‘1’ and back to the first line with ‘a’ and the second line with ‘2’ and so on). By trying to accomplish both tasks at once, your focus is diminished and a task that once took you perhaps 30 seconds to complete took much, much longer. 

Deep Work 

One of the problems that multitasking creates is a fragmented, interrupted workflow that isn’t conducive to higher-order thinking. Many of us try to multitask the busywork that we’re bogged down with for much of the day, but trying to get all of the busywork done means that we’re not leaving enough time for the really important, productive, and satisfying work.

In 2016, Cal Newport wrote Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success in a Distracted World. In the book, Newport defines deep work as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.” Newport argues that knowledge workers’ access to network tools, such as email, messaging platforms, and social media sites, is the primary reason for the lack of deep work. It’s the ease of access across devices that we have near us 24/7 that Newport believes has turned our attention from sizable chunks into slivers. And he’s not the only one. Published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal, computing professor Stoney Brooks conducted a test with business students whereby they were asked to watch a 15-minute video while sitting in front of a computer with tabs to popular social media sites open. When tested on the video’s content, the students who used the sites less often performed better than those who used them more often during the 15-minute video. Brooks concludes: “Inefficiencies in task performance can result from the time spent on the interruption and the challenge in mentally returning to the primary task.” To rephrase: more time spent unitasking and avoiding unnecessary interruptions, can result in greater efficiency overall. 

Distractions, distractions, distractions 

Our brains are hard-wired to crave new information, even if it comes in the form of something as mundane as an email. The fact that a new email has arrived is enough to send our dopamine levels up, up, up. The dings on our phones and our reactions to them are reminiscent of the groundbreaking classical conditioning research conducted by Ivan Pavlov. Ring a bell to demonstrate the promise of food and even when the food is removed, dogs will still salivate when they hear the sound. And we, highly-connected, multitasking, fast-forward humanoids salivate at the promise of new information.  

Furthermore, It should come as no surprise that handling a constant barrage of emails that arrive at all times of the day and night is not only stressful and draining, but it’s also incredibly difficult to regain focus after an email distraction has derailed your thoughts. Software giant, Atlassian, commissioned a study to uncover the costs of email. The study concluded that it takes an average of 16 minutes to refocus back to peak performance after handling an incoming email. Yikes! Furthermore, most people gravitate towards short term pleasure and what’s more short term than looking at an incoming message from a friend or new post on a social media site.

Distractions in the work environment are problems for obvious reasons, namely they inhibit peak performance by normalizing multitasking and they waste company time and resources in the process. Distractions are also a problem for a not-so-obvious reason: being bored is good for creativity. Author of Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive & Creative Self, Manoush Zomorodi, argues that our love for technology and our inability to have quiet moments for boredom is making us less creative. She explains that when we are bored we activate a network in our brains called default mode. This happens when we’re folding the laundry or cooking dinner, for example. Our brains during this time are actually quite active and our mind wanders beyond the conscious into the subconscious to make connections that wouldn’t have otherwise been made. I find this true for myself, as my most creative thoughts and ideas tend to happen while I’m driving. I’m concentrating on the road, but my creative brain has the time and space it needs to pursue deeper work. 

Unitasking for a better tomorrow

It’s understandably difficult to put down our devices and focus on a single task when there are literally thousands of engineers at Facebook and Netflix, for example, whose job it is to capture our attention and keep it for as long as possible. The CEO of Netflix recently said that their biggest competitors are Facebook, YouTube, and sleep. 

As difficult as it may be to carve out distraction-free time to focus on a singular task, it’s critical to preserving the creative thought that makes us human. Therefore, unitasking might be more important than any of us imagine if it means helping to innovate for a better tomorrow.

Ultimately, research shows that our ability to focus on one thing at a time, pursue deep work, and leave room for boredom simultaneously fosters calmness while helping us feel more energized. Sound too good to be true? Try it for yourself. I dare you.

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.