My dad has never been shy about sharing his opinions (there’s no question where I get it from).
And multitasking is a subject he feels very strongly about. If I had a nickel for every time he (without prompt) said, “there’s no such thing as multitasking, there is only doing multiple things badly,” I would make Warren Buffet quake with the sheer magnitude of my wealth.
To a certain extent, I agree. If you try to do more than one deep cognitive task at one, the result is going to be a guaranteed mess.
But at the same time, every productive day and every accomplishment I’ve ever had comes down to being able to multitask like a damn superhero.
It’s about knowing what tasks you can layer and what needs focused attention, and treating those things differently in your schedule.
Here’s how it works for me:
Know When and How to Focus
The first thing to ask yourself is, “how much concentration will this require?”. If you’re doing research or writing a report, the answer is: all of the concentration. In cases like these, removing distractions is imperative to doing a good job.
You probably know to put your phone on silent, close distracting windows in your browser, or even do brainstorming away from your computer on good old fashioned paper to give yourself as much directed focus as possible.
But, if you’re anything like me, there’s a massive distraction you can’t escape from: your brain.
You can do a few things to limit the impact:
- Write down all of your important tasks before you start, so you’re not thinking about everything you need to remember to get done the rest of the day.
- Decide what task you’ll do next before you start a new task, even if you don’t want to organize the whole day. This way, you won’t be thinking about what to do next while you’re trying to work.
- Keep scrap paper and a pen within reach, so you can jot down any distracting thoughts as you have them. This will prevent them from continuing to pop-up.
- Make meditation a regular part of your day to practice focus. I’m terrible at remembering to do this, but everyone who does says it works.
Combine Autopilot Tasks with Cognitive Tasks
When I’m really busy, I tend to avoid tasks that feel like a waste of time. Sure, living in an apartment that doesn’t attract roaches and mice is definitely valuable, but I still find standing at the sink for 30 minutes washing dishes an unbearable waste of time.
But times like this are actually really beautiful. It’s a chance to use your brain without the usual distractions, while getting something else important done.
Most people don’t schedule deep thinking time into their day, but it’s vital to innovation and productivity.
To make the most of it, don’t let your brain go totally wild. Give yourself direction by thinking about a specific problem or by brainstorming ideas for a specific project. I often use this kind of mental downtime to think about content ideas for this blog.
Alternatively, you can use this as your learning time. When I’m not brainstorming, you’ll find me listening to some kind of educational podcast while I’m doing dishes, cooking, walking the dog, doing laundry, etc.
It makes those times of the day feel less like chores and more like something I actually look forward to.
Puzzle Together Your Autopilot Tasks
In university, I had my mornings down to a science. It was a stunning ballet of completing menial tasks.
I’d set water to boil then put bread in the toaster, and while I waited, I got everything ready. By the time my water boiled, my mug was beside the stove with a teabag. And the second the toast popped, the plate was there with a knife and the peanut butter was open.
I even put my socks on while I brushed my teeth.
I’m always looking for new ways to pair mundane tasks to get them done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’m always looking for those little slots of time where tasks fit perfectly together.
If the laundry goes in, I already know what 30 minute task fits into the slot (usually walking the dog).
This type of multitasking isn’t done on the fly. It takes planning and experimenting to make it perfect.
To create your own task ballet, ask yourself a couple questions:
- What needs to already be in place for the process to work? (e.g. I know that for my weekend chores to fit together, it’s ideal to sort the laundry into piles on Friday and start everything as soon as I wake up…otherwise hunger or other plans will get in the way).
- What are the most important tasks, and how can I work around them in a way that makes sense? (e.g. I have to walk the dog by a certain time or his bladder will explode, everything has to fit around this).
It’s also important to keep in mind that you have to stay flexible. Some days it’s a ballet, and some days it’s a comedy of errors. You’re not a robot, and you can’t account for everything. But you can work on the skill of multitasking and start doing multiple things extremely well.
So, who’s right? Do you agree with my dad and think every task needs concentration. Or do you look for ways to multitask and get things done faster? Let’s talk about it in the comments!