Note: This is a rebroadcast of a favorite episode from the archives.
Writing an email while on a Zoom call. Talking on the phone while walking. Scrolling through social media while watching a movie.
In both our work and our play, we’re all doing more and more multitasking. Doing two things at once makes us feel as if we’re more efficient and getting more done.
But my guest would say that all this task juggling actually makes us less productive, while diminishing the quality of our work and stressing our minds, and that we’d be better off curbing our multitasking in favor of monotasking. His name is Thatcher Wine, and he’s the author of The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better. Today on the show, Thatcher explains the illusions around multitasking and the benefits of monotasking — that is, bringing our full focus to a single task at a time. We discuss why reading is a foundational part of becoming a monotasker, and then get into some of the other activities Thatcher recommends monotasking, including walking, listening, traveling/commuting, and thinking. Thatcher argues that doing things like listening to a podcast while cleaning your house isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that you may want to try stripping everything away from your daily tasks except the primary tasks themselves to observe the resulting effect and to strengthen your “monotasking muscles” and rebuild your attention span. Once you’ve experimented with doing a task alone, you can then decide to layer back in the second activity, or, maybe decide you actually liked giving it your all.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- AoM podcast episodes with Cal Newport on Deep Work and Digital Minimalism
- AoM podcast with Oliver Burkeman on Time Management for Mortals
- AoM podcast with Nicolas Carr on how the internet affects our minds and attention
- AoM series on how to improve your listening
- AoM article on the benefits of being fully present
- AoM article on working when you work, and playing when you play
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Writing an email while in a Zoom call, talking on the phone while walking, scrolling through social media, while watching a movie. In both our work and our play, we’re all doing more and more multitasking. Doing two things at once makes it feels if we’re being more efficient, and getting more done. But my guest today would say that all this task juggling actually makes us less productive, while diminishing the quality of our work and stressing your minds. And we’d be better off curbing our multi-tasking in favor of mono-tasking. His name is Thatcher Wine, and he’s the author of the book, The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better. Today on the show, date explains the illusions around multi-tasking, the benefits of mono-tasking, that is bringing our full focus to a single task at a time. We discuss by reading is a foundational part of becoming a mono-tasker, and then get into some of the other activities Thatcher recommends mono-tasking, including walking, listening, traveling, commuting, and thinking.
Thatcher argues that doing things like listening to a podcast while cleaning your house isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but that you may wanna try stripping everything away from your daily tasks except the primary task themselves to observe the resulting effect and strengthen your mono-tasking muscles and rebuild your attention span. Once you’ve experimented with doing a task alone, you may decide to layer back into second activity, or maybe decide you actually like giving it your all. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/monotask.
Alright, Thatcher Wine, welcome to the show.
Thatcher Wine: Thanks Brett, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Brett McKay: So you got a book out called The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better. So in this book, you make a case for mono-tasking, and I think to understand what that is, it’s important to talk about what the opposite of mono-tasking is, and that’s multi-tasking. People have probably been multi-tasking since time and memorial, but it’s… Wasn’t until I’d say 20, 30 years ago that it really became a thing in our culture. And in the book, you kinda do a little cultural history of multi-tasking. When did multi-tasking become a thing in our popular culture?
Thatcher Wine: That’s a great question. So pretty much, if you think of our computers and how long they’ve been around, that’s basically how long we’ve really thought about multitasking as a way of living it. So computers were invented… Well, the terms first used in the 1960s to refer to an IBM computer and how it could do multiple things at one time, amazing. The computer can multi-task. And then as people started getting personal computers, mostly in the ’80s and then got connected to the internet, in the ’90s, and we got these cell phones, and smartphones, in the 2000s. And now we all know where we are today. All of our devices do all these different things, a lot of things at one time. And since people have invented computers, we kind of project on to them if we made them do this multi-task and maybe we can do the same thing. Plus at the same time, life has just gotten busier in general, our to-do lists are really long, there are a lot of demands, financial, societal pressure, social media pressure, FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out, and so we just tend to take on more and more and more and think we can do it like our devices can.
Brett McKay: And when you were exploring and researching this book, did… Were you able to find where people tend to try to multi-task the most? Like what task do they try to do at the same time the most?
Thatcher Wine: That’s a great question. I think if you just look around in general, I’m a very experiential person, the book does integrate a lot of research and a little bit of neuroscience, but my point, a lot of it is just like, you don’t have to look very far to see people multitasking all the time. If you go out to a restaurant and somebody’s sitting by themselves, or even if they’re with a few friends, they’re all on their phones a lot of the time. I live in Colorado, and unfortunately, when I drive to work or bike or go for a walk, I see people on their phones while driving all the time. So it tends to be this kind of permanent culture of doing more than one thing at a time, a lot of times involving your phone. And I think we’ve seen over the past couple of years with the pandemic, and the transition to more people working at home, everybody who does that can relate to the feeling of just having lots of browser windows, like you open and doing multiple things at a time, being on a zoom call, answering an email, your kids come in and say they’re hungry for lunch, your dog wants to go for a walk.
It’s multitasking. Not all that’s dangerous multitasking, like texting and driving, some of it’s perfectly harmless, like folding laundry while listening to a podcast, some people may be doing that now. That’s totally fine. A lot of my point in the book is about bringing some awareness to, is it within your own control that you are multitasking? Did you decide to do that, or did social media tempt you to? Some notification on your phone, take you out of what you should have been doing, things like that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I imagine the pandemic with the Zoom has really increased the amount of multitasking. ‘Cause I’ve been on Zoom calls where you’ve heard the tapity tapity of keys on the other end while you’re talking to somebody, and it’s like, “Okay, that guys answering emails while he’s talking to me, he’s probably not really listening.”
Thatcher Wine: One of the tasks in The Twelve Monotasks is listening in the book, and I go through 12 different tasks, and I know we’ll talk about a few them today. But one of my tips, I guess I thought of after the book, [chuckle] is basically listen as if you’re recording a podcast. What would you… I’m not tapping on my keys, I can’t pay attention to anything else besides our conversation. So if you’re trying to elevate your work or your relationship, or your conversation with your kids and really pay attention to what they’re saying and not saying, listen like you’re recording a podcast. You don’t have to do it every single conversation all day, but it helps you really bring your full attention to one thing at a time and do it well.
Brett McKay: So the reason we multi-task is to get more done. What does the research say about that? Are there… Does that actually happen, and are there downsides to multi-tasking?
Thatcher Wine: It doesn’t happen. And yes, there are downsides, very definitive research has been done on this. You make more mistakes when you multi-task, you don’t get as much done as if you had done one thing in a time, then move on to the next thing. You think you’re going to get more done, but you actually end up feeling more stressed and overwhelmed, so you… You develop… Basically, our brains are only capable of doing one thing at a time, studies have been done where they’re basically are 2% of the population who can be considered super taskers. Those people can do like two cognitive tasks at a time. Most people can fold the laundry and listen a podcast. And for the rest of us, the other 98%, I think it’s okay that we can’t do more than one thing at a time, our brains were built to like, yes, pay attention to the dangers out there, in the world now in old days, there’s like a wild animal or some sort of threat to your human existence.
These days it’s very different, so a lot of things get our attention that aren’t life-altering matters. And when we try to pay attention to more than one thing to time, like typing out that email response while half paying attention to a Zoom call, you don’t do either them well. You make more mistakes, it takes longer and you get stressed out because you aren’t getting things done and you just have this cognitive bottleneck, you’re not quite sure why you’re stressed out, and not feeling good, but it’s probably because your attention is spread so thin.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it is an important point you said, that we can actually only do one thing at a time. So when we think we’re multitasking, what we’re doing is just task switching back and forth over and over again between one task in the next.
Thatcher Wine: Yeah, so a few definitions that are really helpful… You’re exactly right. So most people, when they think of multitasking, what they’re actually doing is task switching, you do one thing, then you do another thing, and then you go back and forth and back and forth. The studies have been done that show takes about 20 minutes for your brain really to come back to… From one thing to another. And if you’re really fast switching back and forth, what happens is you’re not giving yourself the 20 minutes to reset, focus on that presentation you’re working on, or that conversation with your kids, and so you’re not doing a good job, and it’s taken longer as a result. So back to the definitions, yeah, so that’s task switching, which we think is multi-tasking. There’s also primary tasking and background tasking. So that would be the example of you’re listening to a podcast in the background, while folding laundry in the foreground or vice versa. It’s usually a very automated repetitive thing that you know how to do… And if you make the conscious decision to combine those things, that’s fine. Generally, we can do those things well. There are some people who can’t even do either one, and I think that’s great too, if you’re aware of your own abilities to pay attention and mono-task, then you can get through life, I think much better and figure out where to put your attention and focus.
Brett McKay: Alright, so I’m multi-tasking, it causes more errors, actually, sometimes make things take longer than they really should. And you quote Cal Newport in the book, we’ve had him on the podcast talking about this idea of Deep Work. And he makes that point too, he drives that point home, when you try to multi-task, it actually just makes the work crappier oftentimes. And then, also just that back and forth switching, it stresses you out. And that’s why a lot of people… You hear a lot of people talking like, “I’m just feeling overwhelmed.” Then they’re like, “But I don’t really do anything. Why am I feeling overwhelmed?” And it’s likely all that task switching they’ve been doing throughout the day between their smartphone, or the computer, or the kids and drive, that’s what’s exhausting you.
Thatcher Wine: 100%, yeah. And I’m a huge Cal Newport fan, and his work has been very influential in my work. And both as how I run my business, which is called Juniper Books, and just as a small business entrepreneur and manager and creative, like how to focus and get things done. But then it’s also influenced how I think about mono-tasking and the concepts of, especially when it relates to technology and practicing digital minimalism in order to wean yourself off your devices and then reclaim your ability to get your deep work done. I should say, a lot of… I think the pressure that people feel that you mentioned to do more than one thing at a time that results in being overwhelmed and not getting things done. There’s just this glorification of multitasking and always doing more in our society these days. And then you add on the technology, which convinces you that you’re good at it, you can do it, it gives you just enough notifications and feedback that you keep going and you think you can do it all. But if you look at where our time goes and how happy we are these days and how that tracks against the increase of technology in society, it’s not a sustainable equation for the future. So I think we have to reclaim our ability to focus this way.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it’s really hard. I think a lot of people have heard the research that multitasking isn’t effective, but I know that stuff, but I still struggle to let go of the idea. I still want to do as much as I can at the same time, and I think that goes back… We had Oliver Burkeman on the podcast a couple of months ago, talking about his book, 4000 Weeks. And he makes this interesting case that a lot of… It’s just part of being human. We… We’re able to think about infinite things that we can do, but we’re finite beings at the same time, we can only do so much. And he makes this case, a lot of productivity tactics that we’ve developed, it’s trying make us… Trying to make our finite selves into infinite selves, or be able to accomplish all those infinite things. And he says, you kinda have to resign yourself that you are not infinite, so you have to just be okay with doing… Getting as much done as you can in a day and not freaking out about trying to get it all done.
Thatcher Wine: Yeah, I’m a huge fan of Oliver’s book too. So yeah, I think we have to acknowledge the realities. And that’s a lot of what his book is about, that, yes, you want to do more and more, but we are humans, there are only 24 hours in the day, and what the solution to living a happier, more fulfilling life is not to just always be doing more. You have to be realistic. And so a lot of what I bring it back to in The Twelve Monotasks is about the present moment, and in each moment, you can only be doing one thing at a time. You can make it look like you’re multi-tasking. You may aspire to get more done, make more money, have more friends, more followers, whatever. But in each individual moment, that’s where everything really happens. And so, if you choose to do one thing in that moment, that’s really I think the key to productivity and happiness.
Brett McKay: So okay, the downsides of multi-tasking is taking longer on stuff, doing stuff, not as well. Feeling stressed out. I imagine the benefits of mono-tasking is the opposite of those things?
Thatcher Wine: Yeah, so I think of it in three or four key benefits of mono-tasking. One is, you get more done, just overall, you boost your productivity. Second is you decrease your stress level, so that feeling of being overwhelmed and not getting anything done leads to less stress if you mono-task instead of multi-tasking. The third thing is you, you increase your happiness. And that, a lot of that comes from improving your relationships with other people, being more present in the moment and with the people, you either work with, or your family, your friends, and just being more connected to everybody, not being half paying attention all the time. So that’s what it’s really all about. The productivity, the stress and the happiness.
Brett McKay: Happiness. But I imagine… Do you still struggle with multi-tasking even though you’ve written the book on mono-tasking?
Thatcher Wine: Absolutely. [chuckle] I’m… I say, I wrote it largely for myself out of my own experience. How I went through some very distracting things in addition to all the distractions we face, that we’ve talked about as far as technology and work and just keeping up with the pace of life. I went through cancer treatment a few years ago, and a divorce, and putting my business back together after going through those things. And I really had to kind of sit down and figure out how do I navigate my way through all this? Continue to do good work, be productive, creative, successful, be a good father. And how have I done it in the past, even before I went through those things? And so the philosophy very much came out of that, but it hasn’t taken away the problem, it’s just made me more aware of when I’m multi-tasking versus mono-tasking. And therefore how do I feel about it, and I think it’s made a huge improvement in my life.
I’d say for everyone, it’s not about achieving some sort of mono-tasking sainthood. It’s not like you’re gonna get to this enlightened level, and all the problems are gonna go away. It’s more about having an awareness that this is something you’re gonna have to face in every moment, and definitely into the future, as the future gets more distraction. There’s gonna be more technology, more pressure of every kind, to pay attention to things that are important. So it’s good to build what I call the mono-tasking muscles now, so that you have them for everything you need to do today and into the future.
Brett McKay: Okay, so in the book, you highlight 12 tasks that you think are right for mono-tasking and help you build those mono-tasking muscles. And the first one is reading. Why do you start off with that?
Thatcher Wine: So a lot of… My thinking about reading goes back a really long time, and it’s very connected to the work that I do at Juniper Books. Where we curate book sets and book collections for clients around the world and try to give people more and more reasons to buy books and keep books in their home and read books. And, especially as I was going through cancer treatment, I was thinking like, “Why do I do what I do? And how can I… Should I do it on the other side of these health issues? And why is it good for the world? What’s my mission in life?” So I really started thinking about reading in a broader sense than just book selling, for example. And I think books are just inherently good for us as human beings, not only are they great for learning new things and being entertained, but they also strengthen our ability to pay attention. So when you read for 20 minutes or however long you read for, you get back a strengthened attention spam, because you gave your attention, it all went into one single point of focus on the page, and I’m a big believer in printed books, because I think we all look at screens too much, and I think the experience of reading a printed book, just feels different. Having an object in your hands, feeling where you are in the book, how far through what you are, where things happen on the page.
So I thought a lot about reading why it’s good for the world, I researched really dedicated readers in the world like Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful people in the world are also really big readers. They… Their ability to pay attention and be productive is enhanced by their reading habits, it’s not just that they know more stuff. So I put all these things together and I thought about technology and smartphones, and I thought, reading a book is kind of the opposite of a smartphone. Reading a book strengthens your attention, looking at your smartphone, fragments it, makes you think you can multitask and do lots of things at one time. And so, that’s kind of where I thought of the definition of a mono-task to begin with, was reading a book. And then I expanded that to think about, well, what if we took that same approach, and that focus that we bring to reading, and applied it to other everyday activities. And then I started looking into and writing about walking, listening, sleeping, thinking, and how just if you give those 100% of your attention, can you do them better, and can they give you something back in the same way that books and reading give you back your strength and detention span? And ability to pay attention to everything in life and do it all better. So you don’t just have to read all the time, [chuckle] you can do any or all the 12 monotasks.
Brett McKay: No, I think reading is a great foundation, it’s a great exercise to strengthen that mono-tasking muscle, because especially paper books. And I think the thing that makes reading difficult today is that we try to do it on our screens, and I found… And I think they’ve done research, like Nicholas Carr has done research on this, when we consume text via a screen, we have a tendency to skim more, and you’re not as focused, but if I have a paper book or a paper magazine, that’s the only thing you can focus on, you can’t go anywhere else, and it really forces you to stick with the reading. If you’re reading on a smartphone, there’s always that temptation to switch apps or go to the next browser, to click this link, and it doesn’t allow you to get really focused.
Thatcher Wine: Yeah, so Nicholas… You’re three for three, you mentioned three of my favorite authors. [chuckle] Nicholas Carr and I have had some great conversations over the years about the value of printed books, and I have an excerpt that he wrote in my… In The Twelve Monotasks as well, and a lot of it yeah, it does come down to that physical, tactile relationship you have with the printed page, that’s very different from the screen and how your brain creates a physical tactile or physical map of what’s happening in the book, draws connections between things, and the information tends to sink in more than what we read on the screen. Plus, I’m a big believer and basically built a whole career out of what your books do when you’re not reading them, so they sit on your shelves, and they tell a story even without opening them and reading what’s happening on the pages, they tell a story across your book shelves. And they work every time you walk by them or see them in the Zoom background, or see somebody else’s books when you go to their house or see it on the screen, you learn about them and kind of their relationship to the world through what they’re interested in.
They may not have read all those books, but that’s… Those are the subjects that interest them, that’s the story that they wanna tell. So I think books just have this storytelling capability and we have a different relationship to them than just what the digital version of the content shows us on the screen.
Brett McKay: No, I agree with that. I prefer physical books over digital books. And what I like about it is, I got bookshelves all over in our house, and I like being able to walk by and then just like the spine catches my eye for whatever reason, and then I pull it out and I, “Oh, there’s this new bit or here’s a refresher of something that I read a long time ago. I’m glad I picked this up.” I noticed I’ve got a couple hundred books on my Kindle, I never think about the books, I’m like… In fact, I forget which books have on my Kindle, they’re down this digital black hole that I can never access again, because it’s not there in front of me physically.
Thatcher Wine: You know, you never… I don’t know how many people are going to cocktail parties these days, but you don’t go to a cocktail party and say, “Hey, can I take a look at your Kindle and see what you’re… What’s on your reading list and then decide what to talk about?” It doesn’t work that way. So yeah, books are really fun, whether it’s you or somebody else seeing them, just to see them on the shelves and pick one up randomly. I do that all the time. It’s fun.
Brett McKay: So how do you train your brain for Monotask reading? If someone hasn’t monotask read in a while and their brain’s all scattered from consuming content on their phone, what’s a good way to start with that?
Thatcher Wine: It’s hard, and I think you first have to acknowledge that it is hard, and then it’s different from what we’ve been used to doing, looking at our phones and not having to sit with a little bit of what may feel like boredom and silence and quiet for a little time that reading brings, but those are the benefits. So, at first they might seem unfamiliar and different, and that’s a good thing, but I think you have to start wherever you are, and in the book I talk about reading, as a monotask being about 20 minutes long, you can start with 30 seconds, but I would highly recommend starting… Always starting with reading on paper, it can be a newspaper, could be a magazine article, could be a book you’ve read before, and therefore, it’s a lot easier to read and kind of re-enter the world of reading, or it could be a new book, go to the bookstore and just intuitively pick out something that speaks to you. But give it your full attention, expect that you might read a few pages, your mind will wander. You may have to go back a little bit, and that’s okay.
If you give it your full attention, you’ll find that your attention will strengthen each time you go back to the book. And if you can build a habit of maybe reading the same time every day or at the same place in your home, it’ll start to cue your attention to the fact that you’re focusing, this is what you’re doing in this place at this time. It may take a while to figure out what the right routine is for you, but it’s definitely worth it. And once you get into that rhythm, you’ll find that it’s just like an infinite world of discovery, and you can use it for learning about your work, something about your kids, or just being entertained in a way that you haven’t been entertained in the last few years.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. The next monotask is walking. In the book, you start off… In the chapter, you start off talking about some famous monotasking walkers, who are some of these guys?
Thatcher Wine: Basically philosophers, thinkers, scientists have used walking throughout history to work out their ideas, their thoughts, to just get away from the stress of life, even before all this technology and fast-moving pace of 21st century life. So, people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Nietzsche philosopher or Socrates, they all walked as a matter of thinking. That might sound like a multi-task to you, and it can be, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend walking to go, come up with a brilliant idea, but if you put down your work and leave things behind and go out into nature or even the city, go around the block, whatever you have available to you, if you give your full attention to it and pay attention to your walk, like the sounds with your feet, the sounds of nature, the sights that you’re seeing, if you resist the temptation to take a picture on your iPhone, things like that, you’ll really treat walking as a monotask and then you can decide to add back later some problem solving that you wanna do or some idea will just come to you.
Brett McKay: Okay, so that’s interesting. So, walking is one of those tasks that it’s easy enough where you could multitask, you could, again, think about something, or even talk on the phone or let’s do a podcast, and you’re not against that. You’re okay with people listening to a podcast and folding laundry, that’s fine, but it sounds like you’re encouraging people to, every now and then, just focus on an easy task, like a task as simple as walking, so you can strengthen those monotasking muscles.
Thatcher Wine: I think the first step is to strip everything away and get down to one task and identify that as your monotask, and then you can decide to add back later on and occasionally multi-task, but it will be within your control, because you will have identified when you’re monotasking versus multitasking, and you’ll also be strengthening your monotasking muscles, so that you can better resist distractions when they pop up out of your control, and you’ll say, not right now, I’m gonna focus on this. When I get it done, I’m gonna move on to the next thing.
Brett McKay: So monotask walking, that’s just… You’re not gonna be… You’re just gonna go and you’re just gonna focus on just the walk, like, what your step… Is it kinda like a meditative practice? Like, there’s like walking meditations, right? You’re just focusing on the steps, how does the air feel around me, is that what it looks like?
Thatcher Wine: I think that’s a great way to think of it, yeah, as like a mindfulness or meditative walk, and to really think about your other senses. So your body pretty much knows how to walk, so if you think about your other senses like sound, hearing, the sounds you’re hearing, what you’re smelling, what you’re seeing, and if you wanna touch the trees or the flowers or something, that’s fine, but it’s basically bringing your attention fully to the walk in order to relax your mind. And I think like, people… When you’re thinking about something else and doing another thing, so if you’re thinking while walking, because it’s happening in your own brain and nobody can see you doing it, it doesn’t necessarily fit the classic definition of multitasking that is visible to everybody. So I think it’s good to bring some awareness to that. It’s not always a bad thing, but just to acknowledge, I am trying to do two things at a time here, I’m gonna choose one, I’m gonna give more of my attention to it and see what happens.
Brett McKay: And I guess a way to start with that, I think you need to talk about the book 20 minutes again, just like, go for a 20-minute walk where all you’re focused on is the walk.
Thatcher Wine: And I’ll repeat the 20 minutes a lot and in several of the monotasks throughout the book, because I think it’s a good goal for our attention spans. It’s really hard. I mean, studies have been done these days that show that a lot of people can’t pay attention for more than six seconds, and we have to strengthen that. There’s so much every person wants to do on this planet, whether it’s on their to-do list or just having a great relationship, their family or their partner, and we have to basically reverse the trend from fragmenting our attention, look at this ad, look at this notification, download this app, respond to this, click on that. Like, it only will get better and go the opposite direction, if we do things like go for a walk for 20 minutes or read a book for 20 minutes, and the other monotasks.
Brett McKay: And it seems like also walking is a great monotask to do when you’re switching from one task to the next, ’cause it allows… ‘Cause as you said, it takes you what, 25 minutes for your brain to shift from one activity to the next, walking can kinda be like that buffer where you sort of clear… So you work on one project at work, you’re done. I’m gonna take a quick 20-minute walk. You come back and your brain’s kinda ready to work again.
Thatcher Wine: That’s a great way…
Brett McKay: It’s like a reboot.
Thatcher Wine: Absolutely, it’s like rebooting your computer. Yeah, and it’s like, if you acknowledge, Hey, I’m gonna lose that 20 minutes anyway, while my brain kind of consolidates this information from the last thing and gets ready for the next thing, it’s the perfect time to go for a walk. I often say, when you least think you have the time to go for a walk, that’s the most important time to go for a walk.
Brett McKay: Right.
Thatcher Wine: So, it will help you with everything else you need to do going forward, it’s not a loss of 20 minutes at all, it’s pressing the reset button, like you said.
Brett McKay: So instead of surfing Reddit or whatever, go for a walk.
Thatcher Wine: Yes.
Brett McKay: Okay. So another monotask is listening, and you explore listening in two ways, listening to media, sorta like music or maybe an audio book, it seems like one of those tasks that you could do at the same time, it’s mindless, simple enough that it’s okay to multitask, listening to a podcast while doing something else. Despite that you still encourage people again to like, why don’t you just try listening to this song or this album. And that’s the only thing you’re doing. Why is that?
Thatcher Wine: So I think it’s a good skill to have. And I think nobody else is really encouraging people in the world to do one thing at a time, it’s… Yes, you can do more than one thing at a time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should or that it’s good for you. And because listening in that one-way listening example, whereas two-way listening would be more like a conversation. So the one-way listening would be more like a podcast or a university lecture. And if you can develop the ability to pay attention to the whole thing, which is really hard. I completely acknowledge that. I think very few people could actually pay attention to an hour-long class or podcast. And…
But if you strengthen your ability to pay attention in longer increments, you’ll absorb more of the information, you’ll spend less time going back and re-listening to it, and then you can apply it again where you need to. So, if you are going back to school or getting a graduate degree or something, those are important skills to have. And I have two kids and I can see what happens to their brains with technology, and I have to wonder when they progressively go through their education and go to college and everything, is their ability to sit in one place be a little bit bored in a classroom and listen to a lecture and get all the information affected? So I think it’s just a good skill for all of us to have to strengthen that. And thankfully, there are all these great podcasts and sources of listening out there to practice with every day.
Brett McKay: And I think I have a tendency… My wife has this tendency, she’ll listen to a podcast while she’s doing a chore, like folding laundry or just cleaning the house. And I’ve done that too when I’ve got some other chore, I’ll listen to a podcast. And I find that, yeah, on the one hand it kind of gives you something to do while you’re twiddling away with your hands cleaning, but at the same time I noticed that I miss things in the audio. Like actually, I felt like, I miss things when I’m listening, ’cause I’m focused on this task that I’m doing or the task that I’m multitasking, listening to audio with takes longer, ’cause I stop and listen to the like, “Oh, here’s a good part in this episode.” And so, cleaning takes longer if I just had been cleaning and not listening to the podcast.
Thatcher Wine: And if you think about the cleaning as a monotask, it’s not one of the 12 monotasks in my book, [chuckle] but you can do anything as a monotask with your full attention, and you will be the judge. Like, you don’t need a research study to tell you, did you do it better? Did you do it faster? Did you make fewer mistakes? Did you maybe find ways that you enjoyed it that you had kinda numbed out before? And cleaning may not be the best example in terms of discovering amazing new things about yourself, but there are lots of things in this world that I think we’ve gotten used to multitasking, and we miss a lot of the details. It’s obvious in a podcast, if you gave me a quiz, 20 questions, these came up, were you paying attention? It’s not gonna be so obvious with cleaning or folding the laundry, but I think there’s something to discover in everything we do if we pay attention to it.
Brett McKay: What about listening to music while you work? I’ve seen conflicting research on this. On the one I’ve seen research, yes, it can help. Other researchers, no, it’s actually distracting. You should just put on noise canceling earphones and just work in complete silence.
Thatcher Wine: So different people have a different reaction. Like their brains work differently with different stimuli. For me, I find music to be really helpful for working out, like, just changing my mood essentially, and I think probably a lot of people can relate to that. Like, you wanna go high energy, put on some loud music. Whereas with work, if I really have to think, I can’t listen to anything with lyrics. I can sometimes listen to classical music or a piano or something like that, and that is helpful, but other times I’ll just… Now, because I’m so used to thinking as a monotask, I sit down at my desk, I put on my big headphones, and sometimes an hour later I forget that I never put on any music. It’s more just the ritual of here’s how I’m gonna… Where I’m gonna be, I’m gonna give my full attention to my work and thinking, and the music is not really required as part of that. Some people might find that it is required for them to do their best thinking or other work.
Brett McKay: So another part of listening is that two-way conversation, when we’re talking and listening to people in real life, and this is more effortful, and it can… It’s hard, it can be hard just to listen to somebody, what gets in the way of monotasking to this kind of interpersonal listening?
Thatcher Wine: Listening is really challenging, and I think it’s… When early readers read the book, they said that that was one of the chapters that made the biggest impact on their life. And I think a lot of that is because we’ve built up this expectation that people aren’t really going to listen to us completely. And it’s surprising to us, when they do listen, when they give us their full attention. We kind of expect that someone’s gonna be scrolling through their social media and just nodding their head, whether they’re in person or not, and so, why is it hard? I mean, one is because our smartphones make it really hard, they’re very tempting, take some of our attention away. Even if we’re not using them, like, you’re thinking about them on the table there. You’re wondering if your phone just notified you or rang or whatever, or if your kids might try to reach you or the school, etcetera.
So I think there’s this expectation that we are going to be distracted, we are going to be interrupted, and it doesn’t let us settle in to 100% listening state. And for the person who’s doing the talking, they may not pay attention even to what they’re saying, because they’re just assuming that the other person is only gonna listen to half of what they’re saying. So, I think another thing that gets in the way is that a lot of times people are multitasking and that they’re half listening and half thinking, you’re thinking about what you’re gonna say in response, as soon as the person stops finishing talking or you’re gonna think about how to interrupt them. So, I think if you can just truly listen and then when it’s your turn to talk, monotask that, speaking back to them, and it can just change the cadence of the conversation, the amount that you hear, and I think when people really feel listened to, they feel very valued and you end up having a closer friendship and relationship with them.
There are definitely some, just kind of an unlimited number of opportunities that we have in our daily lives to interact with other people and do a better job listening to them. If you really approach it as monotask, I think you’ll see the benefits very quickly.
Brett McKay: So traveling is a time that a lot of people multitask, but you encourage people to mono-task on their commute. What does that look like?
Thatcher Wine: So I mentioned the prevalence of texting and driving earlier, and that was originally where the idea for that chapter came from. And just my own personal public service announcement to be honest. I then broadened it out and it’s called ‘Getting There’. And the chapter really covers everything from commuting, to traveling for pleasure. And just how we’ve… Yeah, we’ve become habitually accustomed to multitasking while we travel, whether that’s listening to an audio book while driving or making a phone call, or if we’re taking the train or plane, doing something else during the time. And if you identify which those things are truly dangerous, if you’re the driver, those go in one bucket. Other things that are just distractions and multi-tasks, that are maybe taking away from your experience of traveling to a foreign country or taking a trip you’ve never been on, or making your commute more interesting, those things are in a separate bucket.
And again, like we’ve talked about before, it’s about kind of unwinding all the multi-tasks and giving your attention to one thing. So if you g-ave your attention to the journey, can you notice more things out the window that you’ve never seen before? Can you plan out a new route to work, to make it more interesting? And then you can add the multi-task back, so most people can effectively and safely listen to an audio book or a podcast on their commute, and that’s totally fine, it’s just about bringing some awareness to it. There are some things that really do stress people out and they’ll make mistakes, like trying to do their work on the train, it’s just too distracting, and they end up making mistakes, it takes longer, they get more stressed out, like we’ve talked about. So it can just help give yourself permission to do one thing at a time and to figure out whether you’re capable of adding other task back later.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I think monotasking and traveling is a great way to exercise that muscle. There’s been times where I’ll just not have the radio on, it’s a great time to exercise that muscle, to not check your phone where you’re at a stop light. And just sit there and just be in the moment. And I’ve done this every now… I don’t know, you didn’t advocate this in your book. I’ve done this when I’ve been feeling… I don’t know, ’cause I just wanted to try it. I’ve tried mono-tasking flying on a plane. So just sitting on the plane and not reading or listening to a podcast. I can’t last that long, ’cause it’s the most… It’s pretty tedious. So if you’re feeling, if you really wanna excise those mono-tasking traveling muscles, try to to sit on a airplane and look around you.
Thatcher Wine: It’s a great point. It’s hard. It leads to boredom. So why do we reach for our phones at a stop light or wherever? Is there really gonna be a life-altering message we have to see or respond to or something, or we just bored? And are we no longer capable of sitting with that boredom for a few seconds or a few minutes or a few hours on the plane? I think it’s okay to be bored. I think we’ve lost that ability. And before smartphones, we had to be bored, we had to daydream or look for something interesting, or strike up a conversation with a person next to us. I think those are all good things to do still, so who knows where it’ll lead, but it can all start with mono-tasking.
Brett McKay: So another task you encourage people to monotask is their play, which seems kind of weird, people would try to multi-task while they’re playing. What stops us from mono-tasking our play?
Thatcher Wine: If you’ve been to a live concert lately…
Brett McKay: Yes, I went to one a couple months, yeah, a couple of months ago.
Thatcher Wine: Yeah. So I know people haven’t been going out as much in recent years, but… Because the pandemic. But in general, if you go, a lot of people have their phones out and they’re taking pictures, capturing video of the show. Other people might be standing there like me, occasionally, I’ll catch myself if I go see a show, thinking about work, what happened that day, what do I need to do tomorrow. That’s another form of multitasking. So whether it’s taking pictures and not really being present in the moment, enjoying it, or thinking about something else and kind of being stressed while you’re supposed to be having fun. If you… You basically give yourself permission again to just immerse yourself in the play, then you’ll be in the present moment, you’ll de-stress, you’ll have a much better time, you’ll be connected with the people you’re with, and you’ll truly be able to press that reset button again and be more productive the next day or whenever you’re done with your play.
So this can apply to like going to the gym, going for a bike ride, kicking the ball around the park, taking your dog for a walk, anything, if you just do it with your full attention and catch yourself when you’re maybe thinking of something else or doing two things at once, scrolling your social media feed at the dog park. Just, it’s totally fine, acknowledge it, let it go, bring yourself back to the play, and there are huge benefits to that. We all need to play more.
Brett McKay: No, I’ve noticed myself multi-tasking, while playing, especially when I’m playing with my kids. It’s not like I’m doing something in front of them, but I’m thinking about all the stuff I need to be doing. All the to-dos around the house, I gotta call this repair person, I got this thing at work, and then I’ve catched myself, I’m not really playing here, I’m doing… I’m somewhere else, I’m not actually here with my kid.
Thatcher Wine: Yeah, and our culture… And a lot of people on social media will make it look like they’re having this great life full of play and all this stuff. But are they really monotasking their play? No, those people are thinking about their social media photo posts and caption and everything while they’re ostensibly playing and they’re asking somebody else to take the picture. So we get the sense that there’s this fear of missing out, everybody else is having this great life, they all have this leisure time and go on these great trips and have these great cars and all that. Those people are just as stressed out or more about the next post than you are. So the place to be is right here right now, and whether you’re doing your work or playing, do it with your full attention.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, there’s that… That someone… There’s some quote about like, “Work when you work. Play when you play. And don’t focus about anything else.” Just ’cause that always lead to… It stresses you out less when you do that, when you just focus on one thing at a time. So another monotask is thinking. But like we’ve talked about, thinking is one of those things you can do… You do all the time. You can think when you’re walking and you can think when you’re listening to someone else talk about whatever, you can think when you’re listening to a podcast. Why make… Set aside dedicated times were the only thing you are doing is thinking?
Thatcher Wine: It has a lot to do with the fact that as human beings, we have these amazing capabilities to think and use our brains to do everything in life. But do we take it for granted sometimes that we’re just gonna think in the background or that we can think of multiple things at once? How… What if we really could harness our capabilities, our cognitive abilities to do our work, to problem-solve, to just build everything… Do everything better in life, really. And a lot of times, I can be an over-thinker and so thinking… The thinking monotask is not necessarily like, fixate your brain on one thing and do it, it’s more just, bring your full attention, your full presence to when you are thinking and when you need to think, in order to do the best work possible and to live life really well. And sometimes you have to go for a walk or go play in order for that creative idea to pop into your head. So it’s not always gonna come from giving 100% of your attention to thinking. I think people can relate to that and creatives, like you don’t always have your best idea when you’re trying to come up with your best idea, it’ll pop into your mind in a dream or in the shower.
And I think monotasking in general, is not just about the task that you’re doing, it’s about monotasking around that task. So if you figure out, I do my best work when I go for a bike ride. I come up with my best creative ideas or I get… Going on trips really inspires me to bring back ideas at home to put to work. If you monotask around that you observe yourself, and when you do your best thinking, then you can do a better job when you actually do sit down at your desk or wherever you decide to do your deep work to quote, reference the Cal Newport book again.
Brett McKay: Well, Thatcher, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work?
Thatcher Wine: So I created a website that’s basically a companion to the book, The Twelve Monotasks. So if you go to monotasking.tips, T-I-P-S, the website ends in ‘tips’ not ‘.com’. You can order the book from there, you can basically find all the local book stores that sell it, it’s available on Amazon as well. The book is called The Twelve Monotasks: Do One Thing at a Time to Do Everything Better. And I’m reachable through the website and through my own site, thatcherwine.com, and also through juniperbooks.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Thatcher Wine, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Thatcher Wine: Thanks, Brett, yeah, appreciate it. I enjoyed our conversation.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Thatcher Wine, he’s the author of the book, The Twelve Monotasks, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about the book at his website, monotasking.tips. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/monotask, where you’ll find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic. Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, and make sure check on our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of The AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium, head over to Stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code ‘Manliness’ and check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android and IOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot, and if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member, you think will get something out of it.
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