How to Cope When Monotasking Goes Bad

Two men, one sharpening an axe on a whetstone.
Two men, one sharpening an axe on a whetstone.

Scene from The Breaking of the Drought, a 1920 Australian silent film directed by Franklyn Barrett based on Bland Holt’s 1902 popular play. Via State Library Victoria

I confess I am a monotasker, but right now, I’m struggling to cope as my monotasking goes bad.

I prefer to do one thing at a time, generally until it’s done. Starting with the most important. Even when I was working as a Personal Assistant at the Department’s beck and call I would put the phone on voicemail for an hour and focus on getting stuff done.

But right now I’m juggling so many things and it feels like they are all the most important:

There’s more, but you might recall I’m not a fan of big lists. I fear I’m becoming a despairing hand-wringer.

How to Cope When Monotasking Goes Bad

If you are a monotasker, it can be hard to adapt to circumstances when you have no choice but to multitask with the attendant attention switching costs.

You have to start by accepting that monotasking is off the table and plan how you are going to manage the interruptions.

Take a Break

I find that when I am interrupted, I lose the perfect sentence I was crafting. And I know that I will never write another to rival it. And I just can’t move on because everything is ruined and I might as well eat worms.

So the thing to do is take a break – take a quick walk, or a tidy up – something different. And then start your pre-work routine again. Make a cup of coffee, tidy the desk, and check your to-do list to see what’s next.

Set Up a Batch

If you don’t want to take a break, consider starting a batch of something.

it’s widely acknowledged that one of the most productive things you can do is batch your tasks. Common suggestions include things like making all your calls at the same time, your filing one afternoon a week, or only checking your email at set times of the day.

When you know multitasking is coming, you can make a plan to cope as your monotasking goes bad. Or think of it as a risk management process. Choose the tasks that are best for you and get them done.


I use the time blocking technique, that is, I plan out my days in large chunks. For example, book work in the morning, housework while dinner’s cooking. But it’s hard to focus when you are expecting an important call. And by the time you get off the phone you have lost half your block, and all the subsequent tasks and to-dos take up the rest.

The temptation is to take up where you left off and try to catch up, but that’s just not possible. So ask yourself  Gary Keller and Jay Papasan’s focusing question from The One Thing:

What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

And then do that.

Take a Deep Breath

Sometimes you have no choice but to get back on with the task at hand and get as much done as possible before the next interruption. So stand up, take a big stretch, then a deep breath and hold it for 10 seconds. Let it out in a big whoosh, along with your stress. If you feel the need to yawn, that will work just as well. Maybe add in a couple of jumping jacks before you sit down and get going again.

Get Some Rest

And if the worse comes to the worst, stop work early and get a good night’s sleep. Everything is more manageable when you are well rested. And like all things, this day (or more) will pass, and you can get back to normal. Tomorrow is another day.

20th April 2017

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