posted by Martin Boroson on December 3 2010

It’s not that easy to move from multitasking to unitasking. Many people try and fail repeatedly.

To unitask effectively, we have to resist the multiple distractions of our environment—the emails, tweets, news streams and the voices of our children, friends, colleagues. We have to resist our own addictive habits. We have to get very clear about what we want to do, and very committed to doing it. But the mental state caused by multitasking seems to prevent us from being clear and committed. It’s a vicious cycle.

That’s why it’s helpful , before unitasking, to take a moment to untask.

There are many metaphors that I could use for this step: refresh your browser, wipe your windshield, press the reset button, clear the clutter. Just stop everything that you are doing to clear your mind. Give yourself a complete mental pause. I recommend doing a moment of meditation. But you could also do a little dance, jump up and down, sing a song, or if necessary, scream.

Having untasked completely, now ask yourself, “What do I really want (or need) to do right now?” It is very likely that a clear answer to this question will just pop right into your mind, for having cleared your mind of other people’s voices, it is much easier to hear your own.

It doesn’t matter if that answer is something that you “have” to do rather than “want” to do, for if there is something that you truly “have” to do, there is no point struggling against it or distracting yourself from doing it. You might as well find the part of you that does want to do it, for whatever reason. If you hate your job, for example, you can at least choose to do your job well in order to get paid. (Or realize that the sooner you get this task done, the sooner you can take a break.)

Once you have chosen what you want to do, imagine the pleasure of doing it (or imagine the pleasure of having done it). Then affirm to yourself, “This is what I want to do.” It might help to add a specific and modest time frame, e.g. “For the next fifteen minutes, I want to do only this.”

You are now able to unitask effectively.

Having taken a moment to untask, and made a conscious commitment to one task, you will be much more likely to stay at it. You will find that you can do even the most mundane task with passion and purpose. You can do it enthusiastically. And with this enthusiasm, it is so much easier to resist the distractions of the world.

This process doesn’t have to take long. The more you practice stopping the mind momentarily, the more easily you can do it. The more you get used to checking in with yourself in this way, for inner guidance, the faster you can move through these steps. You’ll find that you waste less time, and that your day will feel more spacious.

Unitasking should never seem like a challenge. It should feel delightful, like you are home from a long journey, like you have found your groove. But I do believe that this is only possible if you have paused to make a conscious choice.

When you are doing the one thing that you have consciously chosen to do, even briefly, you feel a quiet ecstasy. Instead of the struggle between you and what you are “supposed” to be doing, or between you and all the many things you were trying to do at once, there is just the pleasure of you-doing-this, and the knowledge that this is truly what you want to do.



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