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How I Write and Learn

Mono-Tasking is My New Multi-Tasking

By Miranda, a Learning Center Coach

As an art history graduate student at UNC, I spend most of my time writing and revising my dissertation. There are times when I dread sitting down to re-look at something I wrote, or I simply stare blankly at my computer, trying to will words to come to me. It can, at times, be a very isolating process of spilling my thoughts onto the page in hopes they will become a dissertation. I have found that writing is a challenging process. It can be frustrating and inspiring at the same time. There are days when it feels easy to put into words my ideas on the political landscape of Tudor England and its relation to architecture. However, there are also days when I cannot write a sentence that makes any sense at all as hard as I try. Over the years in graduate school, I have tried many different techniques, tricks, and tips for staying focused and motivated while writing. Some have worked, and others have not, but I have realized how easy it is to be distracted while writing.

A cup of coffee inside a mug reading "Museum Nerd." The cup is sitting on a small table on my patio overlooking a small wooded area.
Sitting down with a cup of coffee mentally prepares me to begin working.

As a busy graduate student, I find that oftentimes when I sit down to study or work, I am distracted by everything I need to do. For example, when I sit down to edit a chapter of my dissertation, I suddenly find myself answering emails or looking up articles to read. I will jump back and forth between various tasks, and every now and then check my social media (which results in a black hole of scrolling through cat videos and DIY home fixes). After working for a while, I realize I have gotten very little done on what my goal was: to edit my dissertation chapter on the politics of space evident in architecture at the early Tudor court.

Rows or bookcases in Davis Library ending in an exit door illuminated by the bright light outside. Mono-tasking is useful when I am working in the library.
The stacks in Davis can be overwhelming and often distracting. Mono-tasking is useful when I am working in the library.

Recently, I have been exploring the idea of mono-tasking to help my dissertation work.

I always thought that multi-tasking was a needed skill set (and in some cases it is really helpful). When I would be working my part-time jobs or studying for school, I always felt accomplished when I was able to jump from task to task (in and out of meetings, answering emails, writing up papers here and there), then moving to the next thing. It was only recently that I realized I was not effectively using my time when my brain is shifting back and forth from task to task. I may have gotten a lot of things done, but how effectively did I do it?

So, I decided to challenge myself to try mono-tasking. Mono-tasking is setting one specific task for a certain time. In all honesty, the first time I tried to focus on only editing the introduction to my dissertation, I found it incredibly hard. I would edit a few sentences, then see a text come in and want to immediately answer it. Or I would see an email that I needed to reply to. However, I would remind myself, “Answering that text or email does not help you edit your introduction—you can do that after.”

The second time I tried, it was much easier. I gave myself permission to say, “This is my only priority for the next two hours, and that is okay.” When I finished, I would then respond and (shockingly) the world did not end because I did not immediately switch tasks to answer emails. Mono-tasking taught me it is okay to create boundaries with what work you need to do or prioritize at that moment. It allows me to focus on one task and feel like I completed the goal I set out to do.

My two cats sitting in my lap as I sit in front of my laptop to begin work.
Having two cats is a huge comfort but also often distracting.

My Tips and Tricks for Mono-Tasking That I Have Started To Do:

  • I make sure to minimize my distractions! I do this by thinking about what pulls me away from my work. Is it the email coming in, a text I just got, or remembering something I need to do?
    • A new system I have been doing now is to turn off my phone and email alerts (sometimes I will even put an away message on while I am working).
    • If something jumps into my head, I have a piece of paper next to my work space where I write it down (it is that paper’s problem till I am done with my one task).
  • I create a schedule! Knowing what I need to do and when helps knowing what task I complete during my work time.
    • I block off my calendar for dissertation work time and for each block give myself one goal (SMART goals) for that time period. This helps me know what I need to be focusing on.
    • An extension of mono-tasking is deep work! Try focusing on one demanding task, which might require higher attention, thought, or awareness without distractions. Mono-tasking can be used for any type of task, but deep work is great for those that need more attention or cognitive energy.
  • I optimize my space and remind myself of how to stay focused!
    • I first also set up my work space so I will not be distracted; this helps me stay focused on my task. For me this means decluttering my work areas so I am not distracted, pre-setting water and a snack, as well as getting a blanket so I am comfortable.
    • On a sticky note, I will write out my one task for that time. Anytime I feel distracted or pulled to do something else, I read the note and ask if what I am doing will help me get to my specific goal.

I have found that allowing myself to devote work time to one single task has really improved my focus and work. It has also allowed me to remind myself that it is okay to focus on only one thing at a time. As I am in the final stages of finishing my dissertation, I find most of my time being devoted to editing and revising. This stage of the writing process takes a good amount of focus and energy. I am having to think in terms of the big picture of my overall project that spans four body chapters and an introduction and conclusion. I am also having to focus on the more minor details of my choice of words, sentence structure, and the flow of my argument. The use of mono-tasking has dramatically helped my brain focus on my final edits by allowing me to truly focus on my goals. Planning out my work time, reinforcing my goals, and permitting myself to engage in deep work on my dissertation revisions has helped me make progress needed to graduate.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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