Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Intense Single-Tasking

In How To Be Effective, I advocated intense single-tasking. Here's a recent example of this tip in action:

In the past month, I started working on a grant proposal to fund my future research lab. Since this is my first time writing a grant, the process is incredibly daunting. After collecting background information and setting up logistics, I was finally ready to sit down and write. But where do I even begin?

I realized that this month-long task would appear much less daunting if I broke it down into tiny chunks, each of which could be done within a small number of several-hour-long work sessions. Here's how I've been breaking it down so far:

Goal: Write the entire grant proposal, eek!

  1. Set up empty LaTeX and BibTeX skeleton files with the expected format, and make sure that they compile properly into a PDF file.
  2. Write a super-rough outline with all of the section headings in place. This scaffolding makes it easy for me to add notes later.
  3. Add citations to background information and related work.
    • Read through a few central papers and books, jotting down notable excerpts and citations in the LaTeX file as TODO notes. At this point, I do not worry about properly formatting the BibTeX citations, since that would break my flow. And as I read, I get new ideas and refine my initial outline. (This takes a few work sessions.)
    • Branch outward from those initial readings, read additional papers, and keep jotting down notes and citations in my LaTeX file as TODOs. (This also takes a few work sessions.)
    • When I am reasonably happy, go back and address all of the TODOs by finding the proper BibTeX citations and formatting them correctly. This is a time-consuming but mindless process.
  4. Update and refine my outline, now that most of my citations are in place. Then add new citations as needed.
  5. ...

Each work session lasts up to 3 hours, during which I am intensely single-tasking – focusing on one specific action with as few distractions as possible. For example, when I am reading a paper and find relevant insights that are worth citing in my proposal, I just write those down as TODO notes and don't bother polishing the writing or creating a nicely-formatted BibTeX entry, since that would break my flow. And when it finally comes time to format BibTeX entries, I can just plow through many of them at once, since it's relatively mindless. Intense single-tasking boosts my productivity by minimizing cognitive load and context switching.

Intense single-tasking has benefits even across work sessions. Since my mind is fixated on some topic (e.g., finding relevant citations), subsequent sessions often become more productive. If instead I worked on task X for 3 hours, took a lunch break, then did Y for 3 hours, my mind would have to spend effort paging in the context for Y.

Moreover, the results of earlier steps get refined by later steps: For instance, I created an outline in step 2 but keep refining it as I progress. And I built up an initial set of citations in step 3 but will inevitably add citations later. The important thing is that I do most of the hard effort in one concentrated step (when my mind is most focused on it) and then incrementally update later, which takes much less work.

Another benefit of breaking down a project into micro-tasks is that it's very easy to get feedback along the way. After each step, I have some (albeit rough) artifact to show colleagues if I want to get their opinions. In contrast, if I had started writing my proposal from a blank slate on page 1 and progressed linearly page by page, then the only things I could show others right away are incomplete introductory sections without proper context.

Lastly, it feels motivating to have measurable, short-term goals that I can aim to meet every time I sit down to work. “Make some progress on this proposal” sounds way too vague; “skim through dissertation X and collect all of its relevant citations” sounds much more concrete. When my work session ends, I can't lie to myself about whether I've achieved the goal I set when I sat my butt down in the seat.

(Open question: Can someone do truly creative work this way? Skeptics might wonder, “Sure this sort of extreme task decomposition might be effective for mundane sorts of tasks, but what about those that require creative output?” My hunch is that it is possible since I've done it many times before, but I don't yet have a compelling argument for why or how.

One possibility is that creativity often appears when you revisit old work again with a fresh perspective; so by breaking down your tasks into tiny chunks that build on top of one another, you can quickly revisit what you previously worked on to refine it. In this case, my grant proposal outline ends up getting refined at each later step of work. But I need to give this more thought ...)


Excerpt from an interesting reader response on 2014-01-06:

I'm writing my first predoctoral fellowship right now for the American Heart Association and I'd just like you to know that your post "Intense Single-Tasking" has been incredibly helpful. I discovered it helps me sit down and just start writing. Also, I found that being cognitively overwhelmed by task-switching tends to allow all sorts of things to sneak into my mind, such as downward spirals of self-doubt.

I even used single-tasking for creativity- after analyzing my data I just sat down for 3 hours and wrote down a bunch of ideas about what I could apply it to, drawing only upon what I've read in the past. Eventually, one hit.

I've utilized intense single-tasking in the past semester, but only in focusing across very different tasks, like starting a new student group, preparing for my thesis committee meeting, getting labwork done, and learning R. Thanks for helping me keep the discipline up with individual tasks within writing.
Created: 2014-01-04
Last modified: 2014-01-04