Humans can’t multitask, but that doesn’t seem to stop us from trying. Many of my students seem to fiddle with their iPads or laptops during class, which guarantees nothing except that two things have now been done poorly.
It’s hard to get our brains to focus on one thing at a time. In some ways, I’m not sure it’s possible at all hours of the day. I don’t think a person can wander the grocery store aisles and not think about cooking and that email they have to send and that thing so-and-so said the other day.
But I think it is possible to be single-threaded at a lot of our everyday work. Like a lot of tools and services, some of this can be improved by spending money on the right things. I’ve been practicing what Cal Newport calls “Deep Work” for years. And lately I’ve started introducing ways to focus on a single task at a time.
Group similar projects and tasks together
Block periods of your day to work on all things for one person, group, or thing at a time. If you have to grade papers, sit down to grade papers and don’t look at email.
Similarly, if you’re working on something that requires spurts of downtime — like rendering video or apps or waiting for machines to do something — don’t switch your focus to something else. Avoid picking up your phone and just sit. Continue thinking about what your next steps are and visualize how you’ll progress once the process is done.
Use the right device for the job
The iPad gets a lot of heat for being “just a big iPhone,” but this is also a strength in the right context.
Put another way: if I had to dig a small hole I could reach for a shovel or a backhoe. I could mow my yard with a push mower or a tractor.
The iPad is a good choice for mono tasks
Similarly, if I have to write a bunch of emails, plan out a project, read a bunch of text, map out some process, or review work, I could reach for an iPad or my Mac. In many cases, the Mac is the backhoe. It can do lots of things, but one place it can’t compete is the single-app nature the iPad excels at.
“Yeah, but Justin, you can just maximize windows full screen on a Mac.” Yes, yes you can. And the iPad can show several apps at a time, too. But this goes beyond that. The iPad’s overall smaller screen size compared to most Macs, it’s pixel density restrictions, and even its inability to fully do some tasks compared to a Mac makes it ideal for mono-tasking.
You can’t switch over to some other random task or app if the device you’re on can’t fully complete or do that task anyway. Just as a shovel probably isn’t the best tool for digging a swimming pool.
Consider email and task management services that enable you to mono-task
Project management apps like Trello and Monday and others all have a role to play. But recognize they’re not going to actually do the work for you. I like using Things on all my devices because I don’t need to share tasks with anyone but me. Further, I have everything grouped by client so I can sit down and say, “Now is when I work on things for so-and-so. What needs doing?” And I have a view dedicated just to them with every task, pending request, and idea related to their work.
Control your environment with good headphones and scheduling
Author David McCullough did all his writing across his magnificent career on a typewriter in a shed in his backyard. It didn’t have many frills, not even a phone. But that’s where work happened.
Controlling your environment is probably the most crucial thing to getting anything done, whether you’re working on one thing or a dozen.
- Use high-quality noise-cancelling headphones.
- Figure out if your’e a person who can work while listening to lyrics or not. I like brain.fm, because I can’t write with lyrics playing around me. I can, however, do design work with music.
- Figure out when you do your best work and design for that the best you can. I work best in the mornings, so I’m keen to protect them from Zoom calls and fluff work. Mornings are for serious productivity. Afternoons are for “everything else.” This includes exercise for me.
- Use Do Not Disturb modes on an automatic schedule. Be ruthless about who gets silenced. I even have a special mode that silences everything from everyone for serious occasions.
I continue to think about how to improve this model of work. But it’s working for me and hope it can for you, too.