Serial Monotasking

Let’s see how much I can write in the next twenty minutes. And for these twenty minutes, I only have eyes for you, dear blog. If something else I need to be doing comes to mind, I’ll quickly jot down what it is on the notepad to my side. But I won’t try to do it. None of it. It will have its own time, later. Now, it’s just you and me.

For these twenty minutes, my one and only concern is this one task. This is the secret to my success of late in churning out articles, chapters, a book manuscript, of getting another in the works, of having a somewhat orderly house complete with organized closets, a garden, and a life.

I do one thing at a time. But never for longer than I can handle at that particular time on that particular day.

Some days I can only focus for twelve minutes at a time. Other days, like today, I’ve got more leisure and a longer attention span. So I start off the day with a general list of categories of things to do, by project, and a decision about what a check mark equals, today 20 minutes. Then I decide where to spend the next 20 minutes, set my phone timer, and go. During that time, nothing else matters. When the timer chimes, I give that category a check mark and decide quickly whether to continue there or do something else. Or nothing at all.  If something intrudes entirely I hit pause on the phone and then resume when the interruption has ended.

At the end of this day I can see that I spent nearly two hours on a book project, one hour on a journal I edit, an hour trying to plow through a backlog of email, nearly two hours on a big household project, and some unrecorded time just running errands. And now possibly an entry in my blog. That’s a good summer day.

Today, but not every day, I got a lot of different things done. But I did not multitask. I don’t know that anyone really can multitask—for multitasking is acting in a constant state of distraction, the bane of our times. Just sitting down to a computer to write, on any computer hooked up to the Internet, invites distraction with social media clamoring for our attention, push notifications from news outlets, emails from friends and colleagues, and for many (but gratefully not me, not now) the lure of online games. On top of that, many of us juggle multiple projects. It’s hard to focus on one thing when there are so many other things we ought to be doing.

Hence the brilliance of serial monotasking. As a little Zen saying has it:

Do just one thing at a time.

Do it slowly and deliberately.

Do it completely.

Do less.

Put space between things.

Develop rituals.

Designate time for certain things.

Devote time to sitting.

Think about what is necessary.

Live simply.”

And I’ve got 20 seconds left.


By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.

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