Why monotasking is the new black

Surviving in the crazy busy modern workplace has resulted in our adoption of some new strategies designed to save us time. The problem is no one appears to have done the necessary checks that these actually work. The one strategy most widely adopted has turned out to be the worst performance enhancing strategy ever, because it requires us to use our brain in the way it wasn’t designed for.

Yes, multitasking is the biggest new brain myth on the block. It’s time to get rid of it and replace it with a far more efficient method of getting more done – monotasking. Multitasking is trying to focus on more than one thing at a time.
Sure you can drink coffee while walking and talking to a colleague, crossing the road and taking a selfie, but you‘re not paying focused attention to any one of those things, including your colleague.

One of the reasons multitasking has become so pervasive is because everyone’s doing it and ticking off items on our to-do lists makes us feel good – which adds to the delusion. We know using our mobile phones while driving is dangerous, yet over 70% of us admit to doing it. We ignore the risk because multitasking has become the ‘norm’; it’s considered a basic work requirement. We even post job adverts stating multitasking skills are desired.

Multitasking fragments our attention – a quick email response here, a two-minute conversation there, we skim information and only grab the headlines. The outcome? The cognitive cost includes poorer memory, mental fatigue, reduced efficiency, effectiveness and innovation. We make more mistakes and we miss opportunities. Overall multitasking puts us at increased risk of burnout, damaged relationships and poorer performance. Hardly the time and energy saving solution we thought it might be.

What’s going on in the brain when we multitask?

One of our brain’s primary functions is to keep us safe; we scan our environment every 1/5th of a second on the look out for a change. The brain loves patterns and what is familiar because the implication is this is a safe place. Our selective focus has developed so we pay attention to what is most important to us at any given moment while being alert to other things happening on the periphery.

When we direct our focused attention we use part of our prefrontal cortex, the highly specialised part of our frontal lobes used for our higher order executive thoughts such as planning, organizing and regulating emotion. This area has what can only be considered a couple of design flaws; it’s small, highly energy demanding and can only handle a small amount of information at any one time. That’s why the number of thoughts we can hold ‘front of mind’ at any given time is around seven. As the ideas get more complex, the space available reduces. When it comes to focused attention there is only room for one.

When we attempt to multitask, our obliging brain attempts to help by giving one task to each hemisphere. The trouble is, the brain can still only pay attention to one at a time, so the brain task switches very, very fast giving us the illusion that we are paying attention to two things simultaneously.

This can be made more obvious when we look at optical illusions.
What do you see in this picture, an Indian chief or an Inuit?


Which ever you see, you can only see one or other image at a time, not both. Multitasking is the one brain function that the more we practice, the worse we get! It has been shown that chronic media multitaskers fragment their attention so much that they perform worse even when trying to monotask.

It has been estimated multitasking causes us to make up to 50% more mistakes and take 50% longer to complete our work, equivalent to roughly a 25% drop in individual productivity over the course of the day. That innocuous two-minute interruption – ‘have you got a moment?’ can translate into 24 minutes before you get back to where you were before your train of thought was broken. No wonder some days we can feel we’ve got nothing done yet are exhausted.

Multitasking in an organisation reduces performance further for example when we are kept waiting for a piece of work by a multitasking colleague or need a decision to be made to move forward on a new project, so we end up starting something else.

We cannot multitask is we are young, if we are female, if we are Clark Kent, not even we like wearing our underpants over our trousers. Multitasking is multi-failing unless you happen to be one of the 2% on the planet who are supertaskers and whose performance gets better the more they multitask. By the way – if you haven’t undergone the cognitive tests to prove it, your belief in your ability to multitask is delusional and research has shown those who believe they are really good at multitasking perform the worst overall. (Just saying!). The way to get rid of multitasking is to stop doing it. But just like giving up any habit such as smoking, it’s not always easy especially we are under pressure and the temptation for the brain is to default to the survival route it thinks works best.

Introducing monotasking into the workplace

While we can all try to limit our multitasking tendencies individually, the need is to reduce organisational multitasking, which has to come from the top. Making monotasking the preferred way of doing, gives everyone permission to follow suit.

Prioritise your priorities

Take 10 minutes at the end of the working day to determine your top three most important and urgent tasks for the next day and list them in order of priority. Shove everything else into a holding pen – those items can wait. Next day start on your top priority first and don’t move to the second item until the first is completed.

Communicate your priorities.
In the office make sure everyone is on the same page and knows which priorities have been agreed on so that there is no temptation to start on something else – this will boost completion rates.

Practice monotasking

Choose one activity, close the office door, switch the mobile to silent, avoid all interruptions and work on just that one activity for a specified amount of time, say 20 minutes.

Monotasking leads to more work being completed more quickly, to a higher standard and consumes less energy. Completing our work well feels rewarding resulting in the brain secreting more dopamine, making us feel good and motivates us to repeat that rewarding activity.

Emotions are contagious, so when we are feel good, others will too, and the working atmosphere becomes more positive and vibrant. Being in a more positive mood opens our mind to more innovative and creative thinking – making it easier to solve more problems and make good decisions. Working with our brain in the way it was intended is not just a better way of working; it leads towards creating a high performance workplace. That’s why monotasking is the new black.

About the author: 

Dr. Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner, specialist in the science of high performance thinking and author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys to Create Your High-Performance Brain (Wiley). Visit www.drjennybrockis.com

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