A few years ago, multi-tasking was the buzz word of the day. If you couldn't juggle emails, phone calls, write that big report, tidy your desk and eat a sandwich all at the same time ... you just weren't working effectively.

There's a growing focus now on what I think of as mono-tasking: deliberately concentrating on one thing at a time in order to avoid procrastination, maintain focus, and achieve a state of flow in your work.

So how do you know when you should multi-task and when you should mono-task? And how do you manage to do the latter?

  • Childcare. You need to be present for a set amount of time - interacting intensely with the kids won't make that necessary time any shorter!
  • Household chores. These mainly require physical action, not mental activity.
  • Commuting to work. If you take public transport, you can read. Drivers can listen to audio material. Even better, combine commuting with exercising and ride to work!

One great way to make the most of these activities is to add in something extra. Audio tapes or podcasts work especially well: you can listen to these in the car, in the gym or while doing tasks around the house, and they can be a great way to fit in some learning that you otherwise wouldn't have time for.

Other tasks such as childcare or reception work (or working in a quiet shop) leave you free to make notes, read, knit, or do something else creative or mentally active.

But there are plenty of times when mono-tasking is the most effective method: usually for tasks which require concentrated focus, and where the completion time is dependent on you. This might be:

  • Writing an essay or term paper for school
  • Reading a book (you can play audio at double speed, but it's much easier to speed-read a book)
  • Carrying out research online
  • Writing a report or other large document

In each of these cases, attempting to multi-task only delay completion of the task (and lose focus, potentially forgetting important aspects or not doing such a good job). If you need to use the internet as part of the task, it's incredibly easy to get distracted by emails, Twitter, web surfing...

Focusing On Mono-Tasks
Most of my big tasks involve writing (I'm a freelance writer and I'm also taking an MA in creative writing). My favorite way to focus and mono-task is to use a full-screen word processing program (I like Dark Room for the PC). This means I'm not distracted by toolbars, formatting options, or anything except the text in front of me.

Other things that work well are:

Setting a time limit for working intensely. Try writing or working for 30 minutes then take a break. This seriously helps with the urge to check email or procrastinate!

Recognizing when you're losing focus. If you think I should check my email or I need to do the dishes, remind yourself (silently) No, I'm writing my report at the moment.

Minimizing interruptions. You might be able to conquer your own impulses, but what about interruptions from outside? Turning off the phone or closing the office door can help here.

Writing down distractions. If you think of something that you need to remember (I must buy milk), then jot it down on a bit of paper. This stops it clogging up mental space.
Mono-tasking is most effective when you're working in a deliberate way towards planned goals. This micro-focus goes hand -in-hand with a wider focus on what you want from life.

It's not easy to stay focused, especially in the information age - there are so many distractions and often a lot of mental clutter going on. But the more you practice mono-tasking, the easier it will be. If you've got any tips for maintaining focus on a single task, let us know in the comments!