How collaborative mono-tasking improves the way you work

Shanon Marks's Layout avatar

Take a moment to step away from whatever you’re doing and imagine yourself sitting comfortably in a serene studio, bathed in light.

Reclaimed wood serves as your desk, rough-hewn and marked by generations of craftsmen who came before you. Your expert palm, coarse from years of sketching, writing, and inventing, rests on a pad of hand-bound paper. Blackwing pencils, a steel sharpener, graphite shavings, and notepads surround you. Large floor-to-ceiling windows frame the ocean just beyond.


Close your eyes and envision this scene; stay in this place for a moment. Think about why creativity flows effortlessly in such an environment.

Now, bring back the tools of our modern world: your mobile phone, a stream of alerts, messages pinging away with multiple, ongoing conversations, each as important as the last.

Suddenly, you’re thinking, “I’ll design the final three screens right after I answer this message — ah, the team needs me for five minutes in the innovation lab. Can I spare 10 more minutes to talk to Ryan? How is it 4 p.m. already? Do they really need me in the meeting? I’m on the verge of wrapping up the comps. My keyboard needs batteries — why don’t we ever have batteries?”

With so many tangents for creative people — designers, innovators, writers, carpenters, painters — to travel down and lose themselves in, places to escape and create are necessary in the midst of the maelstrom. Above all, it comes down to persistence and commitment to your craft. Young, creative professionals often notice early on that their best work never occurs in the light of the office.

Why? They find refuge in the quiet of night when they are finally free of email, messages, and distractions. We begin here — finding time in the day to work administratively to support our teams and finding time at night to create and design.

The perils of multitasking

Multitasking takes you away from solving fundamental problems; it pulls you away from the canvas without reason and interrupts a focused, analytical thought process.


Your goal is simplicity: Arrive at the minimum viable product using as few resources in as few brushstrokes as possible. Multitasking presents you with a table of unnecessary ingredients. A dash of this, a splash of that — but distractions are not augmentations. Your role is to use as few ingredients as possible to create a satisfying meal.

“Multitasking makes problem solving difficult because it quells the voice of reason. ” When I generate ideas or design products, I am accompanied by a voice of reason that asks questions along the way and tests the resiliency of my hypothesis throughout the process. Each interruption stops that process by destroying both my line of thinking and clarity of those thoughts.

You can’t hear yourself think when your mind is rattling with the concerns of life: an argument, the oil light blinking, bills; they all have to wait. There is a time and a place for them and a time and a place for your work.

How to focus effectively together

Creating in a vacuum is as frustrating as constant interruption. Be mindful of how you talk with your team so you can develop processes that facilitate a collective focus.

  • Don’t watch the clock. You’re going to be tired, and it’s your perception of time that will make the work feel like an anchor or a parachute. You can’t control the clock, but you can control your attitude toward the work. Embrace the opportunity to work in the silence of the night or the early morning — finding the time to work alone doesn’t always fit in the parameters of 9-to-5.
  • Create routines your team can respect. Work with project managers and colleagues to protect time to create. Strike a balance between operational progress and smooth business operations while delivering the value clients are paying for. Create clear guidelines for project attendance and blocks off time that can go uninterrupted. Strive to create a rhythm that allows for morning production and afternoon collaboration. Your midday break can act as a shift in perspective. After lunch, put the pencil down and work with project leads, account teams, and technology teams to reconcile today’s work with tomorrow’s needs. Consider your surroundings — evaluate where you are and where you can find time to protect, and be open to opportunities and firms that understand that mindset.
  • Be as focused in meetings as you are when creating.Lead a movement toward efficiency in meetings while helping to define the purpose of each one you attend. Once you’ve defined the purpose, provide the right context for that purpose to minimize (or hopefully eliminate) questions that stray off-topic. Avoid multitasking, too. Put the phones away.

Want more advice on collaborating? Here are five ways to make each other’s lives easier.

The benefits of a mono-tasking creative team

“Great people drive great experiences. ” Watching a fine-tuned creative team in action is like listening to your favorite band; they know exactly when to drop the bass line in and when to leap into a solo. Team members must first trust each other in order to anticipate each other’s needs.


A single creative can’t blaze a path forward to great design; it requires coordinated integration of every part of the project team. The best teams understand this and bring everyone to the table to achieve a common goal.

Our design teams are tasked with service design, experiential design, and emerging technology development, all while working through the challenges of a fast-paced project where practitioners lead the client relationship. I am consistently amazed at their ability to create space for exploration while honoring their commitments to a project’s overarching needs. Their open yet thoughtful style of communication has inspired our clients to become co-designers by adopting a design-thinking posture and aspiring to work as we do. These practitioners operate as individuals and as a team — the magic happens when both occur.

The battle we’re fighting is with ourselves, not outside forces. It isn’t the constant stream of messages or your colleague beleaguering you; it is you. You, alone, must find that time and space. Then, protect it, nurture it, and do more with it than others can.

In the words of Calvin Coolidge, “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

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