A few years ago, “multi-tasking” was a big buzzword. When people wanted to sound busy, the common response was, I am multi-tasking. However, trying to write emails, talk on the phone, finish that big report and check Twitter all at the same time, is a sure recipe for doing all of them badly. Without focus, results suffer and thus multi-tasking has been relegated to a convenient excuse to procrastinate.

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When you’ve got a difficult project to work on, you need to mono-task. Here’s a step-by-step mono-tasking plan to achieve true effectiveness in your work:

1. Step One: Switch Off Distractions
Whenever you sit down to work on an important task, you need to switch off any distractions. That might be the radio, television, Twitter, messenger programs and – most importantly – your email. Be honest, do you ever get emails that really can’t wait an hour for a response?  Constantly switching between different applications on your computer drains your ability to concentrate. You lose time whenever you switch – stopping to check your email breaks your concentration, and it can take several minutes to get back into the flow of what you were supposed to be doing.
2. Step Two: Minimize Interruptions  
Even worse than the distractions that you give into are interruptions – outside events that impinge upon your concentration. Depending on your situation, this could be the phone ringing, a colleague coming over to ask a question, a visitor dropping by, a child needing your attention… Interruptions can be difficult to deal with, as they involve getting other people on board. Here are some tried and tested methods of minimizing interruptions as much as possible: 
-Let your phone go to voicemail (or tell whoever answers the phone to take a message and tell callers that you’ll ring back later).  
-Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door at home, and let your partner/kids know that you’re only to be interrupted in a real emergency   
-If you’re at work, try wearing headphones (you don’t need to listen to music – just put them on). This is a good deterrent to people who might otherwise come over to chat…  
-When colleagues do interrupt, get into the habit of saying “I’m right in the middle of something, but I can spare a couple of minutes. What can I do for you?” (This keeps the interruption as brief as possible, and avoids them coming back again later!)

3. Step Three: Set A Timer  
One way to work very efficiently on a single task is to set yourself a time limit. You’ve probably experienced many times in your life how work can expand or contract to fill the time available; perhaps you wrote essays in the two hours before the deadline as a student, or maybe you always manage to clear your backlog of emails just before going on holiday. 

You can make the most of your ability to focus by giving yourself a time limit in which to work on a task. You might be surprised just how many emails you can reply to in an hour, or how far through your report you can get in forty-five minutes. The shorter the time limit you set, the faster you’re likely to work.

4. Step Four: Take Regular Breaks
None of us can mono-task effectively for long at a time. College students are always advised to take regular breaks while studying – most people can only focus intensely for between twenty and forty-five minutes at a stretch. This doesn’t mean you should suggest to your boss that he cuts the length of your work day from eight hours to forty-five … but it does mean you need to break up your mono-tasking.

After working intensely on your task for (say) forty minutes – using a timer as recommended above – take a break and do something which doesn’t require concentration. This could be a good chance to check your emails, tidy your desk, get a cup of coffee or return a phone call. Just make sure that whatever you do, it won’t take up more than ten minutes or so. Because after your break, you should go back to your mono-task for another timed stretch.

If you feel like you spend most of your days dealing with a series of “emergencies”, or if your email seems to take up all of your time, give mono-tasking a try (it’s particularly effective at the start of the workday, before you’ve checked email and before there are many calls coming in). And if you’ve got a mono-tasking tip – or success story – let us know in the comments.

Written on 5/27/2009 by Ali Hale.Ali is a professional writer and blogger, and a part-time postgraduatestudent of creative writing. If you need a hand with any sort ofwritten project, drop her a line (ali@aliventures.com) or check out herwebsite at Aliventures.