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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Zen and the art of unitasking

How many windows are open on your computer right now? Are you giving your full attention to any of them? As you read this, is you mind wandering to Facebook? If you are in your office working on a spreadsheet, do you find yourself bopping over to Twitter “just for a sec” to check in? Do you get calls from a co-worker right when you are in the middle of writing a report and open up a new window to respond to his or her question and then try to get back to your report, only to find yourself checking your email along the way? Do you believe you’ll never get everything done unless you eat lunch at your desk? We all do it. It’s called multitasking. But we have the power to overcome it.

Studies have shown that multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. The funny thing is that when interviewed, people believe they are more productive when they are juggling several tasks, when in fact multitasking reduces productivity by distracting us. For one reason or another, we have all become proud of our “ability” to multitask, often to the detriment of our work. Even worse, it is affecting how we relate to other people.

A new movement of sorts is beginning to spread: unitasking. It’s not really a new concept, but it’s one that might actually encourage us to better ourselves. The idea is simple: to reduce or eliminate the myriad of distractions that surround us. Of course, the number of tasks that we need to accomplish remains the same, but we approach them from a different perspective. We organize jobs and tackle them in an orderly manner.

Woodworking: the model of unitasking

Woodworking provides us with a perfect opportunity to unitask. For starters, it removes us from one of the biggest sources of distraction: the internet. For the most part, the very nature of building something with wood requires us to proceed in an ordered manner. It’s pretty hard to apply trim to a dresser before building its framework.

And yet, multitasking has become so pervasive, even expected in today’s world that I sometimes try to apply it in the woodshop. For instance, maybe I am faced with a bunch of repetitive cuts and decide to take a break from them and move over to drilling a bunch of holes into which the cut pieces need to fit. While drilling, I start to think it might be a good change of pace to begin routing out some moulding. Oh yeah, I have a TV in my shop and Norm Abram is on. I get drawn into watching “just a few minutes” even though I’ve seen it before. It doesn’t take long to see where this is heading. At the end of the day I haven’t accomplished any one task, but have many unfinished pieces that I will be faced with tomorrow.

Unitasking 101

If you are like me and are simply tired of trying to do everything at once, take action to improve not just your woodworking, but to seek fulfillment in all of your activities.

Encourage personal technology brown-outs. I’m far from a luddite; I embrace technology and believe it has the power to enhance our lives. It certainly shouldn’t complicate life. Before you get on your computer, figure out exactly what tasks you wish to accomplish. Email? Open your email program, read and respond, then close it. Facebook? Twitter? Blogs? Catch up with your stuff, one site at a time and do not go back to it. Avoid clicking on outside links until you have completed reading the site you are on. Don’t open multiple browser windows or tabs. It’s too easy to start clicking back and forth and never completely read anything.

Create an email folder for non-essential messages and drag your Aunt Polly’s email into it. In other words, that forwarded email recommending you view the latest funny viral video on YouTube. Or mark it for later reading. This will keep you from aimlessly surfing, until you have finished the stuff you really need to get done. When you have completed everything you have to do, reward yourself by catching up on those dancing hamsters.

Free your inner woodworker

In the woodshop, make a list of procedures you need to accomplish and put them in the order you wish to accomplish them. Maybe mount a whiteboard somewhere. Don’t begin a procedure until you have crossed off the previous one. Make the list for the entire project: don’t make a list of what you want to get done in a given time period.

If you encounter a problem, deal with it immediately. It’s probably tied to the task you are working on, so just think of it as part of that same procedure. Try not to put in on the back burner.

Let others know you are prioritizing. People respect honesty and directness when they understand you are engaged. If someone enters your shop with a request for you to do something, (i.e. “Honey, can you mow the lawn?”) politely tell them you will, after you complete the task you are working on. The lawn won’t become a jungle if it has to wait a little while longer. I find it very difficult to get back into a procedure if I stop midway through. I feel like I have to rebuild my momentum.

Unlearning multitasking

Of course there will always be times when we must multitask. It’s unavoidable. Obviously professional woodworkers will be faced with time-contraints and be in a more critical environment, but even they can gradually build a unitasking approach. I like to think of unitasking as a technique to strive toward to help us stay focused. It’s similar to woodworking: we know what we want and slowly gain skills that allow us to obtain it.


  1. How about Really Rapid Recommendations? Now THAT's alliteration!

  2. Oh man, you are so dead-on! So many times have I heard people (especially women) bragging about their ability to multitask, while other facepalm at their lack of ability to complete anything.

    I'll extend your theory - I believe that the human brain can process a limited number of informations at a time. Our brains haven't really kept up with the speed of progress in our world, and while mostly being able to decide how to get the next meal, it is forced by the media to consider the situation in the middle east, who we like to run our country, how the healthcare bill will impact our life, that people on the other side of the world is dying of AIDS and hunger and what the weather is going to be like in Canada.

    I say; lets shut off the TV, use the newspapers to cover the table when painting, only use the internet for woodworking videos and focus on building nice things of walnut, maple and cherry!

  3. to further Magnus's point, there's really no such thing as human multitasking. In the world of computers, true multitasking (the act of doing multiple actions *at the same time* requires more than one CPU (or multi core CPUs). Multi-threading (dividing your processing time into small segments to devote to each task in succession) is really the true term that never took flight (I write this as I have to pull the pizza out of the oven).

    But I'm with you on Unitasking. You might also be interested in reading about the Slow Movement (www.slowmovement.com) where the goal is to slow life down. I'm a big fan of it and thought you might find it interesting

  4. I'll bet most people aren't even aware of the original tech usage of Multitasking. It's amazing how many computer tems have been warped for daily usage. User-friendly, upgrade, etc.

    But I sense a paradigm shift because people feel disconnected as we sync-up offline. Haha...

  5. Steve, awosome video! Well said, well made, well done!

  6. Wood grows slowly, let's give it the attention it deserves by working on it slowly without our mobile phone lying next to the circular saw or watching a football match on the LCD behind the drill press, but simply appreciating the mind freeing time we spend in our shops.

    Great site, I share Your ideas Steve

  7. Hey Steve, found your site a few weeks ago and have been following it. I even made a couple of the projects. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that I managed to trim my fingernails while listening to the video. After about a minute of watching you I get seasick from the camera anyway! Keep up the good work.

  8. Steve, with your new-found "Zen-ness", it would appear your Marin County neighbors are wearing off on you! haha. Great post. We all need to be reminded to just slow down a little and do what we can, as good as we can. Keep the great posts/videos coming!

  9. I think its a matter of relevance as far as videos go. I like your videos because they are relevant to what I like to do. I've been a fan for several months now (even before the mere mortals website). I am a unitasker (sp?). I like working with wood. I like your videos and blogs. Is that ZEN or not???

  10. Hi folks
    as a woodworker who is also cook when making money overrides making stuff, I have to say that true multitasking can and in some cases has to exist. When on the kitchen line there are always multiple dishes going on at once or when baking there are always multiple things mixing, proofing, baking and cooling all at the same time. Multitasking in the kitchen is not just important, it is a necessity for survival of another day - funny how cooks refer to making it through a shift as survival!
    However, I have to agree that when I am in the shop and working on a project unitasking is the only way! I come back from the kitchen with the sense of urgency that only loomingly impending deadlines and hungry diners can bring. When I get to the shop I make my self do something that can only happen when entirely focused : sharpening! there is no sharp chisel that ever came out of a rush job! then I am ready for the focus and slow pace of doing things right the first time: one at a time.
    nice vids by the way