Singletasking: The Next Trend in Web Working?


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 (s aapl) 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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