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Summary:

We freelance web workers multitask like it was going out of style. Question is, is it actually going out of style? Some people think so, and they look to singletasking as the next trend in how we work.

Singletasking is just what it sounds like: Approaching and tackling one task at a time sequentially instead of trying to do a whole bunch of things at once, as has become de rigeur in our modern multitasking age. If you’re like me, the thought is probably at least a little refreshing, and maybe more than a little appealing right off the bat.

OneWe freelance web workers multitask like it was going out of style. Question is, is it actually going out of style? Some people think so, and they look to singletasking as the next trend in how we work.

Singletasking is just what it sounds like: approaching and tackling one task at a time, sequentially, instead of trying to do a whole bunch of things at once, as has become de rigeur in our modern multitasking age. If you’re like me, the thought is probably at least a little refreshing, and maybe more than a little appealing right off the bat.

The principle is sound. Take on one task at a time, and don’t begin another until the one you’ve already started is complete. It sounds simple, but you know as well as I do that actually implementing that kind of thing in real life will take a lot more effort than you might first think. For one, it means ignoring any urge to procrastinate, and making sure that you prioritize very carefully in advance, lest you realize too late that what you thought was most urgent actually could’ve taken a back seat to something else.

But if you’ve been feeling like you’re being pulled in all directions, and wondering about how best to counter the cumulative effects of a schizophrenic workflow, you may want to give singletasking a try. Here’s how I’m approaching it:

Avoid Traditional Task Management and GTD Apps

Traditional task management and GTD apps like Remember the Milk and Things for the Mac are great for handling multiple tasks, but they aren’t so great for when you want to drill down and focus on only one at a time. Inevitably, the specter of everything else you have to get done remains present, so it’s hard to devote yourself to any one thing wholeheartedly.

Try out NowDoThis if you’re looking for a minimalist, almost Zen approach to task management. All you see is the task at hand, which it draws from a list you set to begin with. All you see is the task you’re working on, against a plain white background. It’s great for eliminating distractions.

Only Use One Tab

For many, this will be the hardest rule to stick to, especially if you’re using Firefox 3.5 RC 1, which has that very convenient “New Tab” button built right in. But this rule is probably also the simplest way to keep yourself focused.

If you try and try, and yet you’re still unable to avoid opening so many tabs that you have to scroll (this happens to me every 2-3 minutes), you can try out more drastic measures. This handy little Mozilla extension will actually disable the ability to create new tabs. It’s a last resort, but a great one if you doubt your own will power.

Finally, don’t try to work around this by using more than one window instead of more than one tab. That’s just cheating.

Only Use One Screen

I’m a firm believer in the productivity benefits that having multiple displays leads to. My current setup uses not one, but two monitors in addition to the screen built into my 20-inch iMac. It may seem excessive, but once you’ve tried it, you can’t go back.

Unless, that is, you force yourself to in order to achieve greater singularity of focus. Which is what I’ve been trying to do, and finding that its harder than giving up browser tabs. It might be harder than quitting smoking.

But if I can manage to keep my secondary displays turned off, I do find that I can better concentrate on what I’m doing. Even having to actually go to a different site just to get a screenshot and then go back to continue editing a post is strangely calming for some reason. Maybe that’s just the withdrawal symptoms talking.

This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how to shift from being a multitasker to being a singletasker. There’s still the issue of dealing with email, and Twitter, and Facebook, and every other app or service clamoring for your attention. I’ll look at some of those in later posts, but for now, just letting go of Ctrl+Tab is challenge enough.

Have you tried singletasking?

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  1. Simon Mackie Friday, June 19, 2009

    I think some GTD apps (Things, Tudumo, etc) could be quite good at this — they usually have “Next Actions” as the tasks you’re supposed to be working on. If you used a proper GTD approach and just move through your list one task at a time, then that should work. If you’re finding the other tasks in the list distracting distracting, you could make another list (say, “Current Action”) and move one task at a time into it from your “Next Actions” list.

  2. Single tasking and multitasking both have appropriate areas of action.
    I am leery of complicated high tech “solutions” for management of our daily lives and tasks. I do like the simplified almost minimalist approach that is showing up now all around the internet.

  3. Singletasking Is The New Multitasking? | Lifehacker Australia Friday, June 19, 2009

    [...] Singletasking: The Next Trend in Web Working? [WebWorkerDaily] Tagged:focusmultitaskingproductivity [...]

  4. Singletasking Is the New Multitasking? [Singletasking] · TechBlogger Friday, June 19, 2009

    [...] us prevent the multitasking mania that email, IM, and other potential web distractions can create. Singletasking: The Next Trend in Web Working? [...]

  5. Have I tried singletasking? Yes. That’s how I work. The last thing I do before I quit work for the day is make a list – in order of priority, of what I need to get done the next day.

    What’s my GTD app? A yellow legal pad. I list everything – answering emails, meetings, phonecalls, follow ups, even lunch.

    I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on to the next thing.

    Yes, sometimes I get sidetracked – the “urgent” email from my boss, to have me drop everything and tackle one of her “crises” but sticking to my list usually works for me.

  6. Wow – I have been promoting this for years – since 2000 at least – glad someone else is finally taking up the cause.

    Great article – John

  7. I read a good article recently that differentiated between multi-tasking, and task switching (Alt-Tab) Either way, I like WriteMonkey for a single screen with just the document you’re working on.

  8. Do You Have the Discipline to Single-task? | ConversationRate.com | Rick Galan on Conversational Marketing & eCommerce Saturday, June 20, 2009

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  9. Sorry, this is off topic. But how did you manage to attach two external monitors to your iMac, this is the sole factor stopping my buying one.

  10. Beta Alfa » Blog Archive » En sak i sänder gör att många saker händer Saturday, June 20, 2009

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  11. ethernetz » Blog Archiv » Singletasking Is the New Multitasking? [Singletasking] Saturday, June 20, 2009

    [...] us prevent the multitasking mania that email, IM, and other potential web distractions can create. Singletasking: The Next Trend in Web Working? [...]

  12. I love this idea/thought!!!

    It got me to thinking. Single-tasking is what I tend to do when I come home from work and sit down to my home desktop to “check email.” That is it. That is what I do. This task might lead into other things, but not until I finish “checking my email.”

    There are no dual-monitors.
    My work cell is off.
    There are no coworker distractions.

    Email is my task at hand. Thinking about it right now, I am going to not take that single-task moment of my day for granted next time…and savor it :)

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  14. Well to be honest I do believe that singletasking is more productive but I just can’t do it. Everytime I start something I end up noticing new things that I will have to look into. What I do is write a list of tasks I need to do and make sure to tick all of them by the set deadline. To be honest I do miss some of them………

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  18. The Mobility Guy Sunday, June 21, 2009

    Excellent post and I agree… it does sound appealing right off the bar. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on one thing but the level of multi-tasking I try to undertake is just not manageable. I’ve really had to concentrate on prioritizing and executing individual tasks. Usually what that means is closing my web browser, closing outlook and turning my phone ringer off when I’m concentrating on a high-priority task.

  19. You may want to look into the book The Myth of Multitasking by Crenshaw. He talks a lot about how to singletask effectively.

  20. Although I have dual monitors and use tabs on my Internet browser, I am mostly a single-tasker. I try to focus on one thing at a time. I often do open up a new tab or application in anticipation of what I will do next, but I won’t actually get started on it until I finish what I’m working on. Most of the time, my multiple Internet tabs are just holding on to something I’ve finished with until I’m sure I don’t need it anymore, or else it’s what I plan to work on when I’m finished with my current task.

    So does that make me a multi-single-tasker?

  21. And having adopted single-tasking, you interupt your work flow to write this? :D

  22. Barry Pekin Monday, June 22, 2009

    My first reaction to this article was that it was unrealistic. I especially has issues with avoiding task management apps and keeping only single windows and single tabs open at a time.

    On deeper reflection, however, I have to agree with this in concept – if not in the details.

    I find that I can best make progress on a task by single-tasking – by avoiding the temptation to let something move me in another direction. As for avoiding GTD-like tools, I have to disagree. There are things that try to steal your attention, and you often can’t control them. It could be the phone, a co-worker, or even your own thoughts. When you receive such an interruption, using a system of some sort to record that for future reference means you can get it out of your head so that you can focus on the current tasks without dedicating part of your “internal processor” to remembering to address that later. Similarly, avoiding multiple tabs or windows might make sense in concept, but not necessarily in practice. I have probably 5 browser tabs currently open that have been open for days. They are reminders to investigate something when time permits. It’s sort of an in-box. I don’t have to take the time to make some sort of to-do until I’ve made at least a cursory investigation of what’s in them.

    It’s also important to differentiate tasks and projects. If I start a task, I should complete it. That doesn’t mean I have to start a project before starting another. After all, I have long-term and short-term projects as well as multiple customer projects that all need to move forward on a continual basis. To do this, one task might be to identify several tasks that need to be done on a project. As time and schedules dictate, I can then attack those tasks one at a time.

    Oakman and others: Yes, interrupting a task to respond to this could be an interruption to that task. However, the task I just tackled was to process/clear my in-box. I received a newsletter with a link to this article. As part of clearing my in-box, I take a brief look at what’s in there and choose to address it right away or file it for later. This article was interesting and writing a response was a quick part of clearing out the newsletter from my in-box.

    On the unrealistic side of things, I’m having to watch my toddler right now, so I’m definitely multi-tasking. Pardon the unfocused ramblings!

  23. Using only one monitor or only one tab has nothing to do with single-tasking in normal working environments when you’re trying to complete a “task” (other than just browsing or the task of looking at a monitor). The fact is two monitors can help you accomplish a single task faster. What’s next, only have one application open at a time or only use one hand while you type?

  24. This is actually how I work. I hate leaving things unfinished. One task at a time is a great way to work.

    Now, for the tips you have mentioned, only one tab and only one screen, I don’t really see how that is supposed to help. I don’t use multiple monitors because I don’t really require it but I would never be able to work with only one tab. I don’t see why I should either, it would really just slow me down.

    I would say tackle one task at a time, because it feels great to be on top of things and feel like you have actually accomplished what you were supposed to every time you finish a task, but use as many tabs and screens as you need to if it makes you more efficient, which it usually would do.

  25. Kukoo: Web-Based Email Tool for Singletaskers Friday, June 26, 2009

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  28. James Ballard Saturday, June 27, 2009

    If I didn’t multitask and browse with multiple tabs I never would have read this article.

  29. Saulius Naujokas » Blog Archive » sdsds Saturday, June 27, 2009

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  30. Frederik Grue-Sørensen Monday, June 29, 2009

    You really should check out the Pomodoro technique. Its a great way of staying focussed on the task at hand.

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  34. Ultimate Singletasking: Unplug to Increase Your Focus | Productive Catholic Wednesday, July 29, 2009

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  38. I think either multi- or singletasking as a policy is just the wrong way of thinking of it. Some tasks actually work very well together and some take all of your focus. For example, as a hyperactive person, I can not talk on the phone without having something to do with my hands. Usually I’ll do something very auto-mechanical, like a bit of cleaning or the like, which frees my brain to concentrate on the conversation while I still am physically accomplishing things. If I just talk on the phone I can’t focus on the caller because my mind starts looking for something for my hands to do and will have forgotten everything we talked about before I even hang up.

    Meanwhile, an activity that uses your body and mind, like writing or full-out exercise, should be done alone.

    Most importantly, every single person has a best way of doing things for themselves. I’m a life-long multitasker (from long before I ever heard the term) while one of my best friends can’t do it at all, neither of us is wrong because we use the right approach for us.

    There have also been a few neurological studies that suggest that men and women are wired differently in this area. Women have evolved to multitask because, traditionally, we have no choice if we have children to care for on top of our long list of other responsibilities (remember, this is the past) like cooking different parts of a meal and cleaning while we go. Men have evolved to singletask because it made them better hunters. I’m not a neurologist but that makes a LOT of sense, anthropologically speaking and by watching how the people I know work as well.

  39. Pomodoro technique is working out for me, just tried it for 3 days now. I’m a chronic tab opener, but one big distraction I’ve noticed is my home page. Mine’s set to yahoo.com and so everytime i open a new window or tab, one of those main stories will catch my eye. It’s usually empty hype but I just HAVE to know what it’s about. I’m changing my homepage to my e-mail log in page or other generic thing. We’ll see if my theory works.

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