In praise of monotasking

I’ve been a freelance artist for over 7 years. I started while in school, which wasn’t easy.  I’ve realized recently that I’ve gradually been migrating towards a state of more simplicity and focus with my work. This seems like an obvious direction to head in, who doesn’t want things to be simple and focused?  The external world, I would suggest. It seems that as the capacity of the individual in society has been steadily increasing, to a near god-like level compared to our capacity a hundred years ago, there has also been an ever-increasing demand for more productivity.  For example, when we consider the speed of communication in the past each one of us today is like a whole factory of communicators.  Whether we are working for larger company, or we are lone wolves like myself, there is this gentle internal voice asking “How can I be even more economical with my time?”  I think that this has basically become a curse upon our modern minds.  Considering how productive we are now, with full access to instant messaging of all kinds, webcams for e-conferencing or e-meetings, and countless productivity apps at our fingertips, we can single-handedly do what might have required hundreds of people or more before, and in far less time.  How could this be bad?

We know from the rules of thermodynamics that there is no additional energy created or destroyed in the universe, it is all merely transferred from one form to another.  The famed psychologist and writer Carl Jung also believed that adaptation privileges parts of the personality at the expense of other parts.  Put differently, as we grow and adapt to our environment, we aren’t simply adding additional skills and information into our minds, we are also losing some.  With this in mind, I think that we really ought to think more about our current surplus of productivity, and what might have been sacrificed to allow it to occur.  Cal Newport, who wrote the book “Deep Work”, emphasized the importance of concentrating solely on one difficult task at a time, and carving out specific time and space in your life to find the focus required to truly do great work.  Ironically, one of the prime examples he used to describe someone who engaged in his definition of “deep work” was Carl Jung.  He also launched a scathing polemic against modern social media; specifically on the mental disturbance it’s created.  This may seem like a broken record now, yet here we are: everyone is still using it, all the time.  His idea of deep work really resonated with me, so I continued to dig into the idea.

I find that multi-tasking taxes me much more than the end-products that result from my labour.  Everyone knows the feeling of working really hard, only to find out later that much of it, including the added stress and pressure resulting from it, was pretty redundant.  Yes, of course we can get a lot done, and be very productive in short bursts, but what about our long-term average? Are short bursts of productivity really worth it?  Often, we require intense after-hour stimulants to re-energize us, or we spend hours watching TV in order to simply disconnect from the taxing work we do during the day.  For more on this, read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow”.  What happens if we consider our productivity not over months, but over decades of our lives?  If we challenge ourselves to look more at the macro of our ‘abundant productivity’, we’d begin to realize that we get more meaningful work done, and remain generally happier, doing fewer things, but in a deeper way.

Therefore, I think that monotasking is what should be valued more, not multitasking.  Obviously every job is different, but I’m willing to argue that, overall, multitasking costs us more than we realize, and monotasking gives us other benefits that we tend to overlook. This begs the question; whose is the invisible voice telling us that we have to be multi-tasking productivity machines?  Is it capitalism? The industrial machines themselves, which have their own high levels of productivity? Do we feel inferior when compared to them, and so must challenge ourselves to compete with them?  Is it our demanding employers, who had to “dig in the trenches” to get to where they are now, and feel that we should have to do the same? Or is it a quieter, internal voice?  Being a freelancer, I think it’s often the latter; however, I am also aware of how much our internal voice is shaped by our external world.  The structuralist would assert that we are nothing beyond the systems that surround us, and that we are entirely the result of the molding ethos of these larger forces.  Personally, I'm neither willing to completely shrug off the responsibility, nor am I content to accept the bulk of the blame.

Whenever I do leave my familiar surroundings, and decide to spend an hour or two working at the Red Brick Cafe in downtown Guelph, I find that I often get so much accomplished.  There’s a lot to this though; for example, just being in different surroundings helps refresh my mind. There’s also the knowledge that I’m only there for a limited time, so I have to make it count. There’s the busyness of the cafe, which could be good or bad.  According to Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the small dosage of stress that comes from having to work over the sound of a busy cafe, for example, can actually allow us to focus even more deeply on our task at hand.  It seems counter-intuitive but is interesting to consider. I feel that when I focus deeply on a single task, I can complete in just a few hours something I may have been avoiding for several months.  For me, this often manifests itself in writing my many-years-in-the-making graphic novel.  After a few hours of dedicated writing at a cafe, I can get an astounding amount of words written. On one weekend when I spent most of my mornings at a cafe, I wrote more of my first draft than I had in the previous six months.  It felt so great, and it was simply the result of turning everything else off, which is what Cal Newport advocates: knowing the boundaries of when you are and aren’t working, and turning off distractions accordingly.

I’d love to hear what your favourite monotasking activity is? Do you avoid it? If so, why? Share your comments below. I’m always struggling with this myself, but I know that one day I will complete my graphic novel, and I’m looking forward to that day.  If you’re more of a multitasker, please stop being that and exit this browser now - just kidding! Tell me why you prefer it or even if you prefer it?