Monotask to chip away at your to-do list

I’ve had too much on my plate lately.

Maybe you know the feeling.

It’s my own fault, of course. It’s easy to take on more work. After all, you wanna do your best—push yourself—and the simplest way of pushing yourself to do more is agreeing to do something. Or even more effective—telling someone else you’ll do something. Then when doubts creep in, you tell yourself, “I’ll find a way to get it done.”

This is where I’m at right now. Taking on jobs and chasing dreams and carrying responsibilities and saying yes to all the things. But now I’m left with the massive task of…actually getting it all done. And the size of the “all of it” mountain is the worst part. There’s just too much.

My first instinct was to try and handle this aggressively—to recklessly multi-task with no regard for my own sanity. I approached everything that came my way with the same strategy: add it to the pile and rotate between tasks to make it feel like everything receives equal attention. Sifting through emails for three separate freelance gigs at once. Making calls for one client while on location with another. Flitting between skillsets and sides of my brain.

It seems harmless, it can be weirdly fun, and when you actually manage to pull it off, you feel like a god. You start inflating your ego: “yeah, I know all the experts say multi-tasking is bad, but I’m talented and smart enough to pull it off!” This is why multitasking is so destructive: it lies to you. It feels productive. In reality, it’s probably the thing holding you back from reaching the deep work flow state or progressing in your tasks. It’s not sustainable, and the quality of your work suffers.

Studies show it can take anywhere from 11 to 23 minutes or longer to find your focus after an interruption.

If you were to watch yourself from the third-person as you multitasked, you’d see someone jumping from their computer to their phone and back again, typing one minute and talking the next. And you’d watch them fail to notice their documents devoid of words, their to-do lists without a single checkmark. When we see our actions through our own eyes, we can’t see we can’t see how ineffectual they are. But we’re not making progress when we constantly switch from one activity to another without completing the first.

Then, as multi-tasking remains fruitless, and chores and responsibilities pile up, paralysis sets in.

I’ve had furniture strewn about my house, dishes piled up in the sink, files haphazardly saved all over my desktop, and—in a new fun twist—a bevy of external hard drives, each with their own organizational structure. Oh, and work to do. Lots and lots of work.

At one point I left a couch on its side after a futile attempt to get it through a doorway. It didn’t fit, so I just left it there. This is the level of paralysis I had reached.

As you climb in your life and career and take on more projects and responsibilities, that “to-do” pile gets bigger and bigger. It’s not even a bad thing—it’s often an objectively good thing—but it is something you will have to face.

The solution is simple—just do the opposite. Instead of doing everything at once, do one thing—for as long as you want or until it is finished.

Ironically, even though you’ll be working as steadily as you ever have, it’ll feel like you’re slowing down. Because you’re not trying to do the impossible, i.e. everything at once. You’ll find that this new pace is far more sustainable.

Why would you expect yourself to work at speeds higher than human capacity? You’re talented. You work fast enough. Just work at a steady pace, keep your plate full, and keep chipping away.

I’ll spare you the story of the tortoise and the hare. What we’re talking about here is moderation—straight down the middle. Working a bit faster than the tortoise (but imitating his steadiness) but not overextending yourself like the frenzied hare. Quality over quantity? Sure, that’s one way to put it. But it might be more accurately described as quantity of quality.

And the crazy thing is—you’ll probably get there just as fast, if not faster. Here are some basics to get you started.

Put all your tasks in one big list

I’m turning into a broken record on this topic, but it bears repeating—you simply have to get the tasks that are overwhelming you out of your head, and into a list. Paper or digital notepad, it doesn’t matter. Add everything, even if it feels wrong to write “Swiffer the floors” next to “rough draft of essay”. So what if “Buy milk” is next to “figure out what to do with your life.” Who cares? Do a second pass where you put things into categories, if you want. But the only thing that matters is that it’s on the list.

I used to cut myself off before I even started making a comprehensive list, by trying to categorize everything and sync it up to my calendar.

But now, I embrace the chaos of the unwieldy list. It’s better than the unwieldy amorphous everything-and-nothing that’s been in your head all this time.

Once it’s written out, you can organize it how you like. Color code tasks, arrange them from big to small, go by category or time expenditure. Once you know there aren’t going to be any surprises, and that this list is everything you have to deal with, you should feel calmer already. It’s officially finite. No matter how long it is, you can still see the end of it.

Start with easy, or start with hard

Deprioritize lead - crumbled paper by waste basket

There are two schools of thought when it comes to to-do lists.

If you’re having trouble motivating yourself to even begin, you could use all the help you can get with fighting that inertia. One of the ways you can try to hack it is by starting with the easiest possible item on your list. Get it done quickly and knock out a bunch of easy tasks in a row to start building up momentum. It’s like a warm up, or dusting off the cobwebs. And by the time you need to tackle something really taxing, you’ll be firmly in the groove and ready to rock.

Or if you’ve already committed yourself to being a rockstar at work that day, try tackling your white whale first— the most difficult and complicated task on your docket. You’ll have to dig deep and put forth a lot of effort first thing, which at times could be difficult. It’s certainly not how I work a lot of the time. But if you find the right headspace and get it done, you’ll be gifted with a different kind of momentum. You’ll feel like you can conquer anything. If you really want to commit to the idea, arrange your tasks in order from hardest to easiest. And by the end, you’ll be left with stupidly easy things like “floss your teeth” or “finally move the couch away from the doorway.”

After tackling harder tasks, it’ll feel like you’re coasting down a leisurely slide to the end of your work session.

Either way, you can’t go wrong. There are people who swear by both approaches.

Go one at a time, pal

I say take as long as you want on each task. Throw out pre-conceived notions of how long “easy” or “hard” tasks are supposed to take. Sort items by deadline and time required only. Everything else, in a way, is just fluff you create in your head.

The basis of the lie we tell ourselves with multi-tasking is that everything is so important that it must be done at the same time. The radical thing we do by monotasking is take two important tasks, and choose only one of them. The world won’t end if you leave task #2 for a few hours.

As long as you are working steadily, and as long as you are focused on one task at a time, you are winning. It might feel slow, but it’s effective. And if you keep on that path, you’re going to succeed. Hang in there.

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Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

4 comments

  1. Thanks for this Robin, it’s so true. I just about fought off the temptation of opening another email whilst reading this, but I did multitask slightly by having a coffee at the same time.

  2. Once you have a task list, the next most important step is actually DOING the tasks. I find that taking the time at the start of my day to “Plan my day” is crucial to actually getting anything done. Take 15 minutes to review your Todo List and your Calendar to establish a plan for the day. I use Todoist and have a recurring task every day to remind me to do this first. And I use the comment section on this recurring task to sort of talk to myself about my daily plan. I also have a Daily Shutdown task that I use in a similar way to simply reflect on what I actually accomplished. Because as everyone knows, nothing goes according to plan. But planning is still essential.

    1. This is a good idea, Mike. I have a tendency to ignore daily tasks in my google calendar, but I can use Alexa to remind me every morning. Such as “Good Morning! It’s a beautiful day. Be sure to look at your Todolist for 5 minutes.” (Thought here being that 5 minutes is better than 0).

    2. A genius strategy! I think I may even steal that one for my own day to day life, actually!

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