(This post is the second in a three-part series on “Multitasking“.)

We have already established why multitasking doesn’t work (for most of us).

So, if multitasking doesn’t work for most of us, what does work? Well, doing one thing at a time. Some call it unitasking or monotasking.

From here on, I’m going to use the term unitasking to mean doing one thing at a time for brevity’s sake.

I think in a world where more/faster is the norm, unitasking may be our single biggest competitive advantage in terms of doing knowledge work effectively in this day and age. At the same time, it can also be the single most competitive advantage you can have over others. Because when others are trying to do everything and doing many things poorly, you stand out by doing fewer things and doing them well.

The reality is that we can do anything, but not everything, at the same time. When we try to do everything at the same time, we end up doing nothing well. And, this applies to life beyond just work.

Put simply, unitasking means doing one thing at a time. It’s about giving your complete attention to that one thing that is in front of you. It’s about depth, whereas multitasking is about breadth. It’s about saying “no” to many things by saying “yes” to one thing, and doing that one thing with your complete attention. That can only happen when you have already thought about your work and are just doing it; I wrote about that in thinking and doing.

Doing one thing at a time is one of the hardest things in the world. It’s more valuable, more differentiating, and it has greater competitive advantage if you can do it successfully.

There are a few reasons why unitasking works.

As I explained earlier with multitasking, we can either do a few things poorly or do one thing well at a time. We’re most effective and efficient when we do one thing at a time, fully absorbed, sequentially.

Doing one thing at a time helps you have deep, uninterrupted thought, which is required to make better decisions and get projects done. You get more out of that activity by giving your entire attention to it, and as a result you experience Flow more often.

Only when you’re appropriately engaged in the activity that is in front of you can you have the space to think and reflect about what it is you’re doing and be able to comprehend it in any meaningful way. This applies to any activity that you give your complete attention to.

Because you’re doing only one thing at a given time, there is no switching cost involved between doing two or more mental tasks. As a result, you end up working less and doing the right things in less time. And, the quality of your work also goes up.

Only when we develop the ability to do one thing at a time consistently over a period of time can we build our capacity for developing strategic attention, which is our ability to discern the most important information from less relevant data. By building capacity for strategic attention, we ensure that our ability to make decisions lasts well into our later years. This in turn helps us develop mastery over the long term, and make ourselves (and by extension), our organizations, more valuable in the marketplace.

Lastly, by doing one thing at a time, you’re being proactive as opposed to constantly reacting to the latest and loudest. You’re stepping back and making that alone time for yourself, which is essential for being productive.

So, when there are many benefits of doing one thing at a time, why is it so hard to practice? And why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, just because it’s easy to understand doesn’t mean it’s easy to practice. Here’s why:

We find it difficult to manage our attention appropriately. For one, we get distracted by the latest and loudest. The problem isn’t “out there”, so to speak, but within us. We don’t always manage our agreements with ourselves well, and every time we do that, we lower our self-trust.

We’re quick to blame others for interrupting us. The reality is that we teach others how to behave with us. We can’t change others, but can only work on ourselves. This harkens back to being proactive.

With the advent of the 21st century, we’re surrounded by choices, which requires us to say “no” a lot so we can say “yes” to a few things. Without having some kind of changeless core inside of us, it is hard for us to have that focus and stay on top of change.

We don’t manage our agreements with ourselves well, but we’ll manage our agreements with others because of social pressure. We worry about managing others’ expectations at the expense of our own. That requires a trade-off between popularity and integrity.

We think we can “do it all”. We can’t. When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. When we try doing it all, we spread ourselves thin and reduce our capacity to focus and to remain effective.

Unless we give our complete attention to whatever we’re doing, we’re not doing ourselves total justice regarding the activity in question. We’re undermining our effectiveness and performance. We’re doing a disservice not only to ourselves but also to others.

In the next (final) post, I cover how to do one thing at a time, along with examples.

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