Monotasking: How to do less and achieve more

Modern life has turned us into obsessive multitaskers, but doing too many things at once could be making us less efficient. Here’s how learning to ‘monotask’ will help us stay stress-free and far more productive.

Our lives seem to be getting busier and busier. Technology has increasingly made its way into every part of our existence. Economic and societal pressure has increased our need, or at least our perceived need, to always be doing and striving for more.

We might try to counterbalance this busy-ness and stress with mindfulness and yoga – but even making time for these is challenging. We need another way to live a balanced life. The answer? It’s time to stop multitasking and start monotasking. Giving our full attention to one thing at a time makes us less stressed, happier and more productive.

how to focus
Getty Images

But our constant state of ‘busy’ and reliance on devices has caused our monotasking muscles to atrophy. How often have you checked your email during a phone call, or looked at your social media notifications during lunch? We need to hone our monotasking skills by approaching the things we do every day with renewed focus and commitment. Read on to find out how…

Monotasking: How to focus

For all the monotasks, put your phone and devices out of sight and turn off notifications.

1. Read a book

This is a highly effective way to build monotasking muscle because it requires our full focus: our eyes and brains are in one place. The only thing you can do is read that book because if you take your eyes off the page you will no longer be reading.

Your task: read daily (from paper) for 20 minutes
The more consistently you read, the more you will find giving your book solitary focus comes naturally. It’s not about what you read; the act focuses your attention and is valuable in and of itself. This is what monotasking is all about.

2. Go for a walk

Many view walking as a means to an end. But what if we walked for the sake of walking? It focuses attention on our surroundings – what we see, hear and how the ground feels under our feet.

Your task: take a 20-minute monotasking walk once a day
Not for exercise. Not to get from point A to B. Not to walk the dog or multitask with a phone call. Walk alone if possible and without distractions (don’t listen to music or a podcast). Choose a route where you won’t be interrupted. If you pass people you know, just give them a nod or a wave, don’t stop to chat. Leave your phone behind if you feel safe, or switch it to do not disturb. Tune into the soundtrack of your environment.

READ MORE: How to stop living in fear

3. Really listen

Yes, we can nod while a friend is talking and check our texts at the same time. But do we truly hear what they’re saying? Monotasking listening connects us to others, engaging our auditory sense and our brain. When we monotask listening, we connect to other people infinitely better than if our minds are distracted and we can achieve more in our lives and relationships.

Your task: practise one-way and two-way listening
One-way listening: Choose something to listen to (a podcast, an audiobook, a lecture but not music) that is at least 20 minutes long. Don’t treat it as a background – make the primary task to stay focused and not tune out.
Two-way listening: Enlist a friend or relative and have a conversation for 20 minutes. When the other person speaks, you may be thinking ahead to what you’re going to say and this can override your listening. When this happens, gently bring yourself back to listening. Be careful not to interrupt or speak over the other person.

how to focus
Getty Images

4. Sleep… properly

Insufficient sleep increases the risk of ailments including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and mental health issues. Monotasking sleep has benefits that permeate our lives. It improves our ability to pay attention, cognitive skills and mood.

Your task: train yourself to sleep
Unlike the other monotasks, you have to do this every single day. Make a commitment to get at least seven hours of sleep. Set aside eight hours to be in bed: the extra hour accounts for falling asleep and time awake in the middle of the night. So if you get up at 7am, go to bed by 11pm. Turn off all devices 30 minutes before bedtime. Let go of any thoughts of today or tomorrow – write them down if you need to offload. Clear your mind and focus 100 per cent on going to sleep. If you wake in the night, be gentle on yourself. Stay in bed, take deep breaths and do not reach for your phone – it switches your brain into multitasking mode.

5. Have a solo meal

This is an essential activity that is often pushed to the background. We rush through meals because we need to get back to work, or we don’t pay attention to what we are eating because we’re looking at a device. By monotasking eating, we eat mindfully, bringing our attention to the food on our table.

Your task: eat by yourself, in silence
Set aside 30 minutes to eat. Think of this as a date with yourself over a meal. Appreciate your food – not just how it looks and smells, but where it came from. Take one bite at a time and use the full 30 minutes for eating. Each time a thought surfaces that is not to do with your meal, steer your mind back to your task. You’ll know you’ve mastered this monotask when you’re comfortable eating in silence.

6. Enjoy the journey

We have a tendency to use any travel time, whether for work or pleasure, to multitask. When we monotask travel, we focus on the act of getting somewhere and enjoying it instead of feeling like we always have to do two things at one time.

Your task: recognise boredom and cultivate wonder
Identify an upcoming journey of around 20 minutes when you can practise this task. Ensure you are a passenger, not the driver, so you can give it your full focus. On the trip, try to do nothing but experience being transported from one place to another. Don’t listen to music or the radio. Just sit. Notice when you get bored and how it feels. Next, choose a journey longer than 20 minutes. Don’t do anything but enjoy the view and observe what you see.

7. Learn something new

Not only is the brain always capable of learning new skills, but it is also good for it to continue learning throughout our lives as this helps prevent cognitive decline. Whether it is to pursue a different career, for our own intellectual curiosity or to strengthen our ability to focus, monotasking learning is very rewarding.

Your task: make and follow a learning plan
Choose something you could learn in 20 minutes (eg, counting to ten in Japanese). Make a plan of how you will do it (eg, reading, watching a video). Now think through the steps that you will follow to learn and number them. Return to your plan a few hours or days later. Follow it and stick with it. The point is both to learn how to learn and to learn the new skill.

how to focus
Getty Images

8. Teach a skill

One of the best ways to master a skill or subject is to teach it. When we teach something, we approach it differently. It strengthens our brains and builds a connection to others. Bringing all of your attention to teaching as a monotask will help you develop greater confidence and mastery of your own skills and knowledge.

Your task: teach someone to monotask
Invite a friend to participate but do not put away your devices. Start by explaining monotasking. At some point, a distraction will happen (if not, set an alarm for ten minutes after you start) and use this as a teaching point to show monotasking in action.

9. Just play

Playing involves letting go of intense concentration, relaxing our brains and fully inhabiting our bodies. Many adults don’t allow themselves time to play. Often, we feel guilty when we take time for ourselves or we feel like we are wasting time if we are not being productive. Playing takes your mind off everyday life and keeps it there while you reset, alleviating anxiety and bringing you joy.

Your task: do something that brings you joy
This should have no goal other than play in itself. You can choose a hobby you already enjoy, but take a playful approach. Don’t choose an activity that requires a lot of thinking. Ideally, go outside. For example: go to the park, cycle, play miniature golf, read a book to your children and act it out, sing out loud and dance like nobody’s watching.

10. See the world

Our eyes help us navigate and make sense of the world, but we don’t see everything. Sometimes we only see what other people want us to see; at other times we create our own tunnel vision. Seeing as a monotask helps us focus on details that may get lost in the visual clutter of our lives, as well as helping us to notice complexity, nuance and subtleties.

Your task: take a walk with your eyes
Set aside 20 minutes to go for a (screen-free) walk, but this walk is about your eyes. Look at the fine details and the big picture. Observe objects at different distances: the sky, clouds, treetops and those on the ground. Think only about what you can see and try to look without expectations.

11. Be creative

This is one of the most empowering monotasks: by monotasking the act of creating, we can embrace our unique, limitless possibilities. Creating something of any size can help improve our thinking and our enjoyment of life.

Your task: brainstorm your way to creativity
Spend ten minutes brainstorming ideas for a novel, movie or TV series and write them down. Or generate five ideas for what you could do if you weren’t so busy. For example, trips you want to take, or people you’d like to see. Focus all your thinking on positive, creative thoughts.

12. Think big

Most of us never think about thinking because we are doing it nonstop, but monotasking thinking enhances our ability to separate our thoughts. It also teaches us about how we think and enables us to make better decisions without overthinking.

Your task: think about a big idea
Contemplate an idea outside your knowledge: for example, that the universe is constantly expanding, the distances between galaxies, black holes, etc. Spend ten minutes writing down your thoughts – whatever comes to mind when you think about this idea. It’s not about science, it’s about dedicating time to thinking and observing your thoughts. Try to see your thought processes as you move through digesting the big idea to contemplating your response.

This is an edited extract from The Twelve Monotasks by Thatcher Wine, which is published by Yellow Kite, price £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44 until 7 February, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.

READ MORE: How to stop feeling tired all the time