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An Argument for Monotasking

On the ‘Best Albums 2010–2014’ list by Pitchfork, singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me secures a seat at #18. An equally cryptic and powerful jazz-folk-baroque-genreless album that clocks in at an anomalous two hours, Paul Thompson writes in his blurb,

“It’s not an album you put on while you fiddle with your phone or rearrange your furniture; it’s something you spend time with, taking in every bow and quake in Newsom’s exquisitely wrought songcraft… every few months or so, on a slow Saturday morning, I’ll carve out a couple hours to take it all in.”

Not unlike standing in front of a Picasso or a Seurat, Newsom’s album calls for meditation, rumination, and complete attention. To have the Full Experience of Listening, one must devote two hours of entire concentration to this artwork.

But who has the time or the energy for that anymore? In the contemporary era of smartphones, social media, and notifications that don’t so much send faraway smoke signals as beep loudly in your pocket, where does one find the attention-span to sit down and do what feels like nothing for 2+ hours?

To stare at a wall and let sounds float in and out of one’s head—even more so, not to lose focus and slip into a train of thought that leads to checking emails to make sure the report did in fact send?

In the current corporate job market, many, many listings are looking for multitaskers who can handle multiple projects at once; independent self-starters that have their own work while doing that of the company. The buzz words overflow whenever “multitask” is thrown about.

(A simple search on Indeed shows the over-desire of this in listings)

And truth be told, on the surface multitasking is impressive. I have friends who can listen to heavy metal while writing 15 page essays on the development of African tribes in the 19th century without batting an eye. Others that text, make phone calls, and even read while running on a treadmill at the gym. With constant stimuli through phones or computers, the ability to multitask is practically inherent in the psyche of my generation.

However, that doesn’t make it the best form of engagement. In a Stanford Psychology study, participants who tried to multitask at high levels were found to remember and understand less.

See, the crux of being able to multitask means being distracted easily: Facebook updates, texts, people walking by, and even the music that seems to be “helpful for focus” can pull a person out of their work. As Professor Clifford Nass said,

“[Multitaskers] are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.”

Which is why I call for monotasking, whose name speaks to the opposite: to carry out tasks one at a time. I, personally, am a monotasker. Listening to music while writing? Absolutely not. Watching TV and doing work? Wouldn’t look once at my computer. Even having my phone on the same desk leads to me checking for messages every few minutes, disrupting my flow.

So why not engage one-by-one? Why listen to music while reading if you will be zoning in and out of each task, not internalizing or appreciating either to the fullest of your ability? Because when we multitask we lose focus, we don’t appreciate, and we don’t remember what made us laugh, what made us cry, and what reverberated through our bones in whatever we heard or read for that split second of attention.

We should appreciate and foster monotasking. We should try to sit still for a few hours and focus on one task, not looking at our phones. We should lay down, put an album on, and drift into someone else’s world, ignoring the tether’s to our old one.

Because like it or not, distractions are everywhere—even in your pocket. You open your phone and hope someone important has messaged you when really it’s an invite to some concert you don’t want to attend.

But if we learn to monotask, perhaps they’ll become what they really are: tiny blips keeping you from pursuing life in real time.