Forget Multitasking — Your Secret to Acing Productivity Is This

AdobeStock/ Jacob Lund

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AdobeStock/ Jacob Lund

Kelsey Down
Kelsey Down11

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Science has long established that multitasking eats up around 40% of your productivity in any given undertaking. But do you continue to live in denial by constantly alternating between numerous tasks at work in the hopes that you’ll be able to accomplish more throughout the day?

The most obvious answer to multitasking is its direct opposite—monotasking. But monotasking is just one dimension of enhanced focus. Matt Dubin, a doctoral candidate in Organizational Psychology and a Culture and Leadership Development consultant, identifies three alternatives to multitasking: monotasking, deep work, and flow. Dubin studies under Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who pioneered the theory of flow in the 1970s.

Dubin says that while these three methods of focused work are interrelated, they should not be considered synonymous. “Monotasking is the ability to fully focus on a single task, free of distraction, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be cognitively demanding,” he says. On the other hand, deep work implies single-minded focus on one cognitively demanding task, usually “in a professional context.” Finally, flow defines the experience you have while engrossed in a task.

Dubin says when you are in flow “you are completely focused on the task at hand, time flies, and you forget about your stressors and anxieties because you lose yourself in the flow activity.” Applying this definition, we might say that athletes, painters, musicians, and other skilled professionals can all experience flow in their respective vocations.

Years ago Dubin’s advisor, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, observed that people of all trades and skills “from rock climbing, to painting, to surgery,” shared similar experiences when they lost themselves in an activity. While people in flow do lose their sense of self and their sense of time, they simultaneously feel more control over the activity. They are motivated to pursue the activity for its own sake, according to Dubin, rather than in pursuit of some external reward. And through that impartial motivation they are able to give over all their attention “to the point that effortful activities feel effortless.”

“When we are in a state of flow,” Dubin says, “we are more fully engaged in what we are doing and we are building our capacities by seeking out challenging experiences, allowing us to reach our full potential. Flow has been found to increase our well-being at work, our level of creativity, and ultimately our performance.”’

Does that sound blissful? You aren’t alone if you think so. The good news is that even in our hyperconnected world it is possible—if somewhat difficult—to drown out that noise and lose yourself in the work you love.

Through his research Dr. Csikszentmihalyi identified three preconditions for flow. Here are each of those preconditions, and tips for meeting them in order to achieve flow in your own work:

1. The individual’s skill level must match the demands of the activity.

The key to meeting this precondition is to constantly challenge yourself. “While it may be easier to work on mindless activities that you know you will succeed at, we enter a state of flow and really improve when we pursue activities that stretch our capabilities,” Dubin says.

So instead of only accepting tasks that you know you can accomplish, seek out opportunities to work on new and challenging projects—then rise to the occasion and see how you might surprise yourself.

2. The activity must include a clear goal.

Set a quantifiable goal, and a deadline, before you dive into a task or project. Then to ensure you meet your predetermined goal you should set aside time on your calendar for that task.

“Many of use our calendars only to block out times for meetings and appointments,” Dubin explains, “but it’s important to also block out time to throw ourselves into that challenging project that will require our complete attention.”

Warn co-workers ahead of time that you will be focused on an important project. Some workspaces have established visual signals people can use to alert others that they are engaged in deep work, but you can also implement individual cues like wearing headphones when you’d rather not be disturbed.

 3. The individual must experience immediate feedback about their progress throughout the activity.

Don’t tap your boss on the shoulder and ask for feedback every ten minutes while you work on your task. While you should certainly seek feedback from leadership at appropriate times (such as one-on-one meetings or weekly emails), set benchmarks for yourself on each task.

For example, if you are working on a project that will take a few weeks, plan to meet certain goals within that project by specific dates. On each designated date, evaluate your progress so far and adjust as needed. You can even do this on smaller tasks that will only take an hour or two, by recognizing what you need to accomplish in the next ten minutes, half hour, and so on.

Dubin suggests that you seek feedback from your boss after each project, too: “ask what specifically made it great and what you could specifically improve to make it better the next time,” he says. “Then, the next time you are working on a similar project, you can have a better sense of how you’re doing while you are working on it without needing someone else to give you feedback on it, allowing you to more easily enter the flow state.”

Dubin also points out that there are always at least a few responsibilities in a job that are less conducive to flow, like answering emails or filling out simple reports. Set aside time for these other tasks as well so you don’t forget about them during your periods of flow.

He also recommends that you find ways to apply flow in areas of your job that will help you progress in your career. You may experience flow while designing the slides for a presentation, but if you fail to devote equal attention to the content itself, you run the risk of disappointing your team. On the flip side, imagine the benefits you’ll reap if you can use flow to write the content for that same important presentation.

By applying flow to your daily work habits, you will not only enhance your productivity but you will find increased satisfaction in your career.


Kelsey Down is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City who has been featured on publications including Elite Daily, VentureBeat, and SUCCESS. She’s covered fun stuff like why TV reboots need to stop and how to hack sleep as a workout, and she also writes about personal and family wellness. Follow her on Twitter @kladown23.

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