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My next pick in CrackBerry's Top 22 Favorite Tech Things of 2022 is decidedly low tech. You might say it's one of the world's original technologies: the written word. A.K.A. a book. A paper book.
It's called The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to do Everything Better, by Thatcher Wine, and it played a huge role in helping me get my groove back in 2022.
Following the realization that upwards of 10 years of way too much smartphone and screentime was making me dumb, reading this book gave me a 12-step program of sorts which I put into action and has made an incredible difference in my day-to-day life. In a relatively short period of time I feel like my brain has been rewired to the best version of myself. I'm able to focus better. I'm more productive. I'm present in the moment. I'm listening better. I'm learning faster. I'm happier. Basically, everything is better.
I want all my fellow CrackBerrians to be and feel their best, hence I want you to also read this book or at least grasp the premise. It's an easy book to read and worth buying ... or you can follow the instructions at the bottom of this post for your chance to win a free copy. (Seriously, though, it's worth paying for.)
The myth of multitasking
Most people are familiar with the word multitasking. It's a mainstream word used to describe the act of juggling tasks and doing more than one thing at a time. Turns out it actually started in the world of computing in the mid-1960s when it referred to the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer. Growing up as a kid I always attributed my first encounter with multitasking to Microsoft, when they pushed it as a benefit - who wouldn't want to have multiple apps open and showing on the screen at once?!
The problem with multitasking is that our brains are physiologically incapable of firing the same parts of our brain cells/neurons at the same time for different tasks.
Our brains do better when doing one thing — it's just how we're built.
Where we have a limited ability to multitask is where the activities we are doing fire up different parts of the brain. For example, we can drive a car while listening to music without crashing. However, reading a text while driving requires the same part of the brain to function, which is why it's SO DANGEROUS to text and drive. You're either focused on the road or you're focused on the message you're reading.
Another example is listening while writing. If I'm at the computer, like I am right now, focused on writing and my wife starts talking to me, while I hear the sounds I'm not actually listening to her words until I stop typing and focus on what she's saying. I simply can't do both tasks well at once.
Trying to learn something new is another example we can all relate to where attempting to multitask simply works against us. There's a big difference between studying in a quiet environment with no distractions for an hour or two versus trying to absorb the same information while in a busy environment full of distractions that splits your brain from the focused learning task into a bunch of other tasks — you'll retain nothing. Our brains do better when doing one thing for a prolonged period of time. It's just how we're built, and we haven't yet evolved to keep up with the multitasking world and environment we find ourselves in.
Small changes, BIG impact
I want you to read the book, so I won't go into all the details of the 12 monotasks it outlines, but I'll give you a handful of the tweaks I made to my habits that have made a positive impact on my daily life:
1. I switched from two or three computer monitors to one
I always thought more screens make you way more boss and cooler and more productive, but it turns out I'm way more productive and focused when I have only one thing to look at in front of me. I used to layout my multiple monitors with what I thought was a brilliant flow of my chat apps open (Slack and/or Skype), my email inbox open, a split-screen with a couple of browsers open and whatever else I might be working with at the time (Word, Photoshop). Now, when I actually have work to get done — writing an article, building a financial model in Excel, working on a PowerPoint presentation — I have only that ONE THING OPEN, and I get it done so much faster and better.
2. When I get distracted, I read for 10 minutes
If I do catch myself becoming distracted or unproductive during the workday, which still can happen from time to time, I step away from the computer or what I was trying to get done, grab a book, and sit down to read for 10 minutes. Our brains had thousands of years to evolve and adapt to the focused task of reading, and there's something about it that gets our brains working again. After 10 minutes of reading I'll go back to the work I was trying to get done and find that I'm immediately focused and productive again for quite a while. It's an amazing hack.
3. When I'm on phone calls, I slide back from the computer and put my phone down
You can't actually listen to the person on the other end of the Zoom call, Google Meet or phone call if you're also doing stuff on your phone or computer at the same time. I force myself to push back from my desk and really focus on listening to the person on the other end of the call now. When you're intently focused on listening it immediately makes for better calls. Sorry Zuckerberg, I don't think Metaverse meetings are the way to better meetings. The answer is simply being in the moment with the person you're meeting with, regardless of the medium.
4. I'll often eat, drive and workout in silence now
When you go back to boring living and only do one thing at a time, it's amazing how time slows down. While we haven't figured out how to officially put more hours into the day, I will absolutely say that actively monotasking makes every day feel like it's two or three (or four) times longer. Doing routine tasks like eating, driving, and exercising by themselves with no TV or music in the background somehow makes these tasks better and more intense. Food tastes better and you don't mindlessly overeat as much. You actually start seeing things around you while driving when you just drive and don't talk on calls or listen to the radio or podcasts. And a workout done in silence gives you a greater mind-to-muscle connection than one done to thumping bass. I find it too weird to monotask these activities all the time, and I like listening to podcasts while driving and music when working out, but at least a few times a week I'll do these activities in silence. I feel better for it.
5. I go for long walks daily
For the past few months, I've made it a daily habit to go for a long walk pretty much every day (I've been averaging 20,000 steps a day). Sometimes I'll take calls or listen to a podcast during these ~six-mile walks, but more often than not I'll just walk in silence and focus on the walk itself. That's a lot of time to dedicate each day to a walk, but if you think about how much time the average person puts into watching Netflix the hours are there if you make it a priority. When I go to bed each night I take a quick look at my calendar for the day and the weather app and decide if I'll be doing the walk early morning, midday, or in the evening, and I schedule it. Like reading, there's something about a long walk that just feels right and it resets the brain and body. When I get back to my work tasks, they don't feel like work anymore.
6. I got some hobbies again!
Somehow, between being an adult, work, and the ability for our phones and TVs to suck up whatever free moments are left in the day, I realized last year that my life was void of hobbies. To make the most of the long winter months, my brother and I bought new snowmobiles last winter and started sledding again. And my work colleagues and I scheduled a weekly badminton game. Scheduled activities are ultimate monotasks — if you want to stay on the trail or smash that birdie you can't have other thoughts in your mind. Beyond the enjoyment of the activity while doing it, I find the rest of the day and the next day I'm able to hyper-focus on work tasks.
If you're still reading this (and good on you for reading and not just scrolling TikTok or Instagram!), I'd love to hear if any of this resonates with you. Are you already a master of monotasking? Or are you like I was: digitally distracted by all the things? If it's the latter, again, give some of this monotasking stuff a try. You don't have to do it all at once, but step by step I think it makes for a better way to get through the day.
We all live one day at a time. So whether you're starting off your career or a new project with big goals to achieve or you're already retired and want to make the most of your free time, monotasking is the way to actually do more while enjoying it more.