Multitasking is for suckers… Monotask!

I stink at grading. There. I said it.

It’s not that I provide inadequate feedback. While I sometimes err on the side of too much, I think I do formative assessment pretty well (now, if they’d only read my comments…). No, the problem is actually doing it. Part of the problem is my career-long battle with procrastination. But a key factor is my inability to just sit and do it. I have a similar problem with research writing. I’ll determine a time to do it… and then other stuff creeps in: adjusting my course prep; replying to e-mail; responding to inquiries from colleagues on various administrative matters; reading a news article that seems interesting. I tell myself I’m multitasking — and all of it is done in less-than fashion.

Multitasking sometimes works, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced it’s a myth bordering on a sick joke. In a 2008 issue of The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen writes about “The Myth of Multitasking.” She quotes one of the celebrated letters by 18th century British statesman Lord Chesterfield to his son: “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.” She also draws on the work of Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and author of CrazyBusy:

[I]n his book he calls multitasking a ‘mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.’ In a 2005 article, he described a new condition, ‘Attention Deficit Trait,’ which he claims is rampant in the business world. ADT is ‘purely a response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live,’ writes Hallowell, and its hallmark symptoms mimic those of ADD. ‘Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points,’ Hallowell argues, and this challenge ‘can be controlled only by creatively engineering one’s environment and one’s emotional and physical health.’

University of Colorado grad student Katie Shives suggests a possible solution in Inside Higher Ed‘s gradhacker blog. It is at once deceptively simple and possibly essential for professional productivity. Perhaps I’ll try it!


The Lost Art of Doing One Thing at a Time
April 8, 2014 – 9:22pm

abstract photo of car in tunnelKatie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at and on Twitter @KDShives.

Today I submitted my very first grant application to the NIH. Funny thing is, until yesterday I thought I had 6 days to submit. However, I did not factor in early submission deadlines, so thanks to a well-timed reminder from our Grants and Contracts office I suddenly realized I had less than 24 hours to finish a grant package with all of the supporting materials or else all of my hard work would be for nothing. How did I get it all finished in time (other than lots and lots of coffee)?


Or, as I like to refer to it “the lost art of doing one thing at a time.”

[more after the jump!]

This may fly in the face of previous articles touting the benefits of multitasking, but sometimes you can’t do more than one thing at a time, especially if looming deadlines are involved. How often do you find yourself trying to focus on one thing only to find yourself doing something else moments later without realizing how you got there? Whether it’s tab hopping in your browser or the call of a smartphone constantly plugged into social media, it’s easy to get distracted. As the ability to multitask has become a must-have skill for most graduate students, it is easy to forget about the benefits of doing only one thing at a time.

So how do you make it easier to get to this space where you are only working on one thing? There are two sides to this approach, and they involve both the environment around you (external) and the environment in your head (internal).

External: Is your workspace good for doing only one thing at a time? Or are you constantly getting distracted for various reasons?

Can you close the door to your office? Sometimes this simple move is all you need to gain space for some serious focus. Many students don’t have offices though, so can you work remotely? Home workspaces qualify, and there are lots of ways to make your home workspace a great area to focus. For some people, finding a good space to focus may mean the silent study room in the library, for others it could be in the middle of a bustling coffee shop. Find wherever it is that you can work from without interruption in an environment that does not distract you from the task at hand.

There are multiple ways to battle distracting noises, so take some time to find what works for you. Some may find that noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs are necessary if you can’t work from another location. It may look a bit odd to your co-workers, but if it works for you then go for it.

Internal: Sometime the biggest barrier to focusing and getting things done is ourselves.

If you find yourself struggling to focus for long periods of time there are two things you can do. One is slowly building up the length of time that you focus on one item; in the beginning this can be difficult so there are multiple techniques out there (like the Pomodoro technique) to help train you to focus in small bursts with rest breaks in between.

However, if your mind keeps straying you may want try a mindfulness practice such as meditation in order to build up the ability to quiet your mind and focus on whatever you are doing in the present moment.

Now that you know some of the basic ways to get your environment and mind prepared for working on just one task pick a time each week where you set out to practice monotasking. This is crucial, as the ability to focus is like a muscle, it gets stronger the more you use it. So now, if a new deadline magically appears you will have the tools necessary to focus down and finish whatever project graduate school throws at you.

Do you have any tips for doing one task at a time? Please share them in the comments section below!


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