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Unitasking in a multitasking encouraged world

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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.


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