Unitasking in a multitasking encouraged world

Multitasking – we all do it.

As defined in this article from The New Atlantis, “used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshaling the power of as many technologies as possible.”

We live in societies, work for companies, and experience our days in ways that seem to encourage the behaviour, and we may feel proud to be considered an astute multitasker. The mentality invades our digital lives, too; productivity apps declare that we can get more done than ever. But are we truly getting more done? Whatever happened to the now quaint notion of focusing on one task (unitasking)?

Let’s consider two types of multitasking.

For the first, think: doing the dishes (active) while the coffee brews in the percolator (passive). For the second, think: jumping from one task to the next. The first is active-passive multitasking and the second is split focus multitasking. Often, multitasking also gets conflated with other productivity concepts such as speed and efficiency.

We shouldn’t do away with the practice of multitasking altogether.

In fact, studies suggest that multitasking can actually improve brain function as we age. Rather, we should reevaluate the need to constantly work or function solely in this way. I’m advocating for working unitasking in to our processes. I write instructional documentation for a large software client. The environment is rife with conversations coming from multiple sources, often at the same time. I track an endless stream of information by way of email, IM, and persistent chat. My unitasking moment usually means turning off all notifications and other distractions to write content for one task, learn about one new concept, even attend a meeting without multiple programs and browser tabs open behind the scenes. Carving out the time to just work on one thing can help both our professional and personal lives: whether taking advantage of a lull to finish a work item or reading a good book for part of the afternoon.

Like any new habit, start small.

Working in a short unitasking moment – even just for 10-15 minutes amongst the hustle and bustle of your day – can be refreshing, satisfying, and possibly a stepping stone towards better productivity. Take pleasure in cutting out all other distractions and focusing on one thing and one thing only; and, who knows, maybe even get more quality work done in the long run.


Marc Hollett is part of Innovatia’s Technical Writing team based in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Whether developing information for knowledge base articles, improving user interfaces, or learning new technologies, he devotes his efforts to trying to help real people who use all of the above.


  1. Jay

    Really great article, Marc. Is it bad that I am listening to a TV show as I type this? 🙂

  2. Lynne Attix

    Great article, Marc! I notice that I get a lot more done when I’m unitasking — checking a lot more items off the to-do list than when I’m doing many things at the same time. And, I’m less frazzled at the end of the day.

  3. Sarita Shah

    Great article, Marc! Studies show that our brain can focus on one task at a time. But yes, I agree that multitasking helps in improving brain function.

  4. Pam Hollett

    I enjoyed your blog regarding multitasking! I agree, far too often we are rushing in life, trying to achieve many goals without out accomplishing what we want. Focusing on one task and doing it well can be rewarding! I was focused only on reading your blog and really enjoyed it!!!

  5. Jamie

    This is a great article, Marc. I know that I work best when I dedicate my time in blocks as I work on content. There truly is something to be said for focus.

    Those days that I have to balance multiple priorities at the same time (and unfortunately, I think we all have them) are the days I walk away most frazzled and less satisfied with my overall progress and quality.

  6. Marc

    Appreciate all the comments and you all taking the time to read my post — whether you were multitasking or not. 🙂 I can relate to what each of you said.

    Jamie, I agree that we all have multiple priorities competing for our attention, and it’s easy for each to be “distilled” by us trying to do everything at once. At the busiest of times, it can feel like quicksand.

    I’m currently reading “The Organized Mind” by Daniel Levitin; if you’re interested in more studies in the areas of uni/multitasking and how we process/filter information, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of this book.

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