Skip to Main Content

Project Management

Download the monotasking zine!

Monotasking for Productive Work Blocks

We often think of time management as project planning and task prioritization, and both of those are extremely important for effective time management.  Another big component of time management is procrastination - finding so many other things to fill our time that we never end up spending time on our project.

An image of an octopus or cuttelfish.  Unless you have eight tentacles, you shouldn't try to multitask!What happens when we actually do sit down to work, though?  Do we start with the best of intentions, only to find that after 20, 60, or 90 minutes, we haven't really made much progress?  You may have fallen into the trap of multitasking, where you assume you are getting work done because you feel busy, but in truth you are distracting yourself from real progress by hopping back and forth between several tasks.  Instead, why not try monotasking?

What is monotasking?

A hermit crab, hiding away to get some work done!

Monotasking is a reminder to focus on one task at a time.  Constantly switching attention between multiple tasks may seem like something we can learn to be good at, but it is much more likely to degrade our performance on any of those tasks.  Monotasking approaches to time management encourage short, concrete tasks that are the sole focus of your attention for a block of time.

Monotasking can actually be a bit harder than it sounds, especially after years of learning to prefer multitasking. A few very basic strategies, though, can help get you on the road to more productive work blocks.  There are plenty of apps and programs to help with these strategies, but most require a change of habit rather than equipment.

Strategy 1: Planning for monotasking

Like this Engineer's Compass, take the time to check your orientation and plan ahead before starting your work.Whenever you sit down to work, you should consider setting a concrete goal.  Ask yourself:

  • What specifically am I trying to accomplish right now?
  • Why is it important?
  • What obstacles might I face?  How might I address them so that I can still make progress on my goal?

When you are wrapping up your work, try answering the following questions:

  • What progress did I make?
  • What new issues came up that I need to address?
  • How should I proceed next?  

By all means, write down these questions and answers! Time management is about saving yourself time and energy, and it always wastes time to have to try to remember (or infer) what you were doing the last time you worked on your project.

Strategy 2: Remove distractions in your work environment 

Another hermit crab, reminding you to close yourself off to external distractions.​Monotasking, like anything that involves focus, is hard when you have distractions around.  Unfortunately, we don't always have access to the perfect work environment.  Here are a few suggestions for preventing interruptions:

  • Close your email and silence your phone(s).  Really, shut everything down.  Even seeing a notification that someone is trying to contact you will make it difficult to focus.
  • Use apps to lock down your browser to prevent you from distracting yourself with, e.g., social media.  Check out Leechblock for Firefox, StayFocusd for Chrome, SelfControl for Mac, or Freedom for all platforms.
  • Use different desktops on your computer to separate programs from each other and ignore things that aren't relevant to your current task. Macs have spaces now, and Windows 10 has multiple desktops
  • Listen to a white noise or background noise generator to prevent other noises from stealing your focus.  Noisli works in the browser and even has a timer and a text editor if you want to do some writing.

Strategy 3: Set time limits

A picture of a tomato; it doesn't fit with the "sea" theme, but "pomodoro" is the Italian word for tomato.It's way easier to stay focused if you only have to do it for a short period of time.  One of the primary techniques for time-limited productivity is the Pomodoro technique, which suggests that you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break.

Various tools can help you keep track of your "pomodoros," including a simple stop watch or egg timer.  Just google "pomodoro timer" for a variety of website options, or you can try downloadable applications like Time Out (for Mac) for when you're offline.  If you want to combine a timer and a distraction blocker, you might try Strict Workflow for Chrome.

Strategy 4: Clear your brain

Is it hard to focus because you have other ideas popping into your head uninvited?  You may need a brain dump so that you can make sure those ideas don't get lost in the shuffle.  Before you start working, take some time to write down all of the things competing for your attention.  Treat yourself as if you have no long-term memory and have to leave notes for yourself about everything important.  Hopefully, having these ideas stored somewhere will relieve you of the pressure to remember everything and allow you to focus on one thing at a time.

A fish, to remind you to "just keep swimming!" Don't stop working, even when a new idea occurs to you.Using a tool like Evernote, which allows you to search your notes and combine information from multiple sources, may help you retrieve that information again when you need it.  Other project management tools like Trello, Asana, etc., can also serve this function.  

This way, if you have a new idea while you're working on something else, you don't have to stop and switch to that task right away.  Just write it down quickly and go back to what you're doing.  You can return to the new idea later, then use your planning and prioritizing skills to figure out how important it is and when it needs to get done.


The best way to make progress is to set clear goals and do small chunks of focused work to make progress on those goals.  Don't trust yourself to remember everything, and don't make the mistake of waiting for big chunks of time.  Do one thing at a time, focuse for a short while, then move on to something else!  You'll be done before you know it!

Good luck!  Get working!