“Stop what you’re doing,” Verena von Pfetten of The New York Times instructs us in her recent article, “Read This Story Without Distraction (Can You?).”
She quickly qualifies her directive: “Well, keep reading. Just stop everything else that you’re doing. Mute your music. Turn off your television. Put down your sandwich and ignore that text message. While you’re at it, put your phone away entirely. (Unless you’re reading this on your phone. In which case, don’t. But the other rules still apply.) Just read. You are now monotasking.”
Monotasking — as in, doing one thing.
As in, not multitasking.
A great example of monotasking is, apparently, reading — what people in previous centuries used to do as a diversion from the tedium of life, but now, in the midst of a teeming 21st century life, do to reverse or assuage existential angst, exhaustion, or frenetic distraction. That something as elemental as reading is being rebranded is just further evidence of our becoming untethered from traditional ways of thinking about traditional habits.
For example, Pfetten quotes a 28-year-old writer who revels in the simple pleasure of doing one thing at a time at work: “If I keep looking at my phone or my inbox or various websites, working feels a lot more tortuous. When I’m focused and making progress, work is actually pleasurable.”
Another word for this natural and age-old phenomenon of paying attention to the thing–singular–we are doing is “flow,” defined by Bill Burnet and Dave Evans of Stanford D-School in Designing Your Life as “total engagement.”
Say Burnet and Evans, “Flow is engagement on steroids. Flow is that state of being in which time stands still, you’re totally engaged in an activity, and the challenge of that particular activity matches up with your skill — so you’re neither bored because it’s too easy nor anxious because it’s too hard.” People experiencing flow describe all manner of benefits including “ecstasy,” “euphoria,” “calm,” “peace” and “the feeling of disappearing.”
That feeling of increased dopamine that we experience when we repeatedly check our inbox or get lost in a chain of text messages can also be triggered when we focus in and let it flow. Monotasking — doing whatever we are doing in fullness with focus — is still the gold standard of really getting things done.