The Art of Monotasking vs. Multitasking

Monotasking isn't just efficient, it's a mental health exercise.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #517

Every year I attend an event called Burning Man. You've probably heard of it. If you haven't, it’s a 75,000-person city that comes into existence one week a year. It’s built by artists and sculptures and mad scientists in one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world. Nothing lives there but stink bugs. And it’s so hot and dry, they don’t even stink.

Burning Man is a “leave no trace” event. That means exactly what it sounds like. Every single thing you bring in, you take out. Everything. Every can. Every wrapper. You even collect and evaporate your waste water. 

While this sounds like a lot of work, it’s actually an un-frickin-believable amount of work. And that’s a good thing, because it’s the perfect environment to uncover a deep truth about how humans operate.

Humans Have Flow

When you’re brushing your teeth at Burning Man, you have to put all your attention on brushing. How will you wet your toothbrush without getting any water on the playa? Where will you spit? How will you rinse your mouth? In daily life, we have sinks and plumbing to take care of all that. But at Burning Man, none of that exists. So you put your full attention on brushing your teeth. You think through every moment. You account for everything. You enter a state of flow.

When we have to put our full attention on something, our brains quiet down. Everything goes away except that one thing. And we then do it, and get it done. And we enjoy the process.

Society Has Multitasking

Nothing could be farther from how we live our lives in so-called civilization, however. We multitask. That means we try to split our attention between several things at once.

Despite the ever-growing body of research showing that multitasking turns your brain into mush, many people still do it, and are actually proud of it. If you’re one of those people, please check out the research. In the short-term, multitasking turns you into mush. And long-term, they think it may broil the mush, causing it to permanently stick to the bottom of the pan. Yuck.

Multitasking Causes Delays

We multitask because we believe it will save time. But really, it won’t. Let’s say that twaddling an entire batch of turnips takes 60 minutes. And mushing a case of tomatoes takes 30 minutes. 

If you multitask. You twaddle for 10 minutes, mush for five, and repeat over and over. You’ll finish at minute 90. The turnips will be done twaddling at minute 85, and the tomatoes will be done at minute 90. And the whole time, you were mentally hopping back and forth between the tasks.

Monotasking Gets Results Sooner

Instead of alternating, you could also do all the turnip twaddling and when you’re done, do all the tomato mushing. The two together take 90 minutes. But with monotasking, the turnips are done at minute 60—25 minutes sooner than when multitasking. The tomatoes are still done at minute 90. And there was no need to make your brain skip back and forth between the two.

Monotasking took the same amount of time. Monotasking finished one task 25 minutes sooner. And, most importantly, monotasking didn’t require you to keep switching tasks.

Monotasking Promotes Mindfulness

Eliminating the back-and-forth of task switching is key. Let your brain focus on one thing and one thing only: whatever is right in front of you. 

You’ll be able to bring 100% of yourself to the problem at hand, and without thrashing back and forth, you’ll be able to notice if you get off track and make schedule or scope adjustments as needed.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.