By now, it's common knowledge that multitasking is a myth. Multitasking makes you slower, less focused and less productive (sources).
...is that true for all kinds of multitasking? Is a laser sharp focus on single-tasking always good for us or can it have detrimental effects as well? Indeed, are we missing out on greater performance and productivity if we aren't practicing "multitasking in slow motion"?
Read on to find out.
What is Multitasking in Slow Motion?
Multitasking in slow motion is a concept introduced by Tim Harford in this TED talk:
It turns out, some of the most prolific and creative researches and scientists could be called multitaskers. At least in that they all pursue research in more than one field and often also pursue a non-scientific hobby or art form with great passion.
In other words, the genius mathematician is not - as we might expect - someone who's constantly and exclusively obsessed with mathematics.
Okay, But Does This Matter for Entrepreneurs?
I believe so. Entrepreneurship and scientific research have many differences between them, but there are a few important commonalities as well. As an entrepreneur, you're engaged in challenging, high stakes problem solving. Finding creative solutions to those problems is hugely valuable and can be a crucial driver of entrepreneurial success.
And if your business revolves around any kind of product (as it should), then part of your job is to find different and new ways to think about and present ideas and "invent" products that solve your customer's problems in new and noteworthy ways.
Since I talk a lot about entrepreneurial problem solving and I keep harping on about the importance of developing focus and not spreading yourself too thin, what should you make of this idea of multitasking in slow motion? Are single tasking and laser sharp focus not all they're hyped up to be after all?
Which Would You Prefer?
I believe there's a piece in Tim Harford's talk that is important for entrepreneurs. And it doesn't conflict with my usual focus on... well, focus at all.
There is a right and a wrong way to do multitasking and it's best illustrated with 2 contrasting examples:
The Wrong Way (What Most of Us Do)
You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is reach for your phone and check your emails and messages. Inevitably, some work related stuff has come your way over night and so you start your day already thinking about or worrying about work stuff while you have your morning coffee.
You sit down in front of your computer and start slogging away at an endless cycle of semi-distracted activity. You have tabs with email, social media, news and other sites open at all times. Your phone is in reach. Anytime it takes a second for something to load on your screen, you reach for your phone.
You spend some of your time doing actual work and a lot of your time doing "work stuff". Busywork. Checking your stats. Checking your email (again). Whenever you do challenging work, anytime you get stuck on something or encounter the least resistance, you reach for your phone or switch to a different tab or go refill your coffee.
You have more than one business/project/website you're working on and you often can't decide what task to do for which project, so you switch between those as well.
You're multitasking in the sense that you're doing many things at once, but also not really doing any one thing with great focus.
When your workday ends, you continue spending lots of your time glued to your phone. You are only half present with friends and family. You may watch a movie or a show, but not without frequently checking your phone in between, maybe reading another work related message or two.
You go to bed feeling frustrated about how work related stuff has been on your mind the whole day, but you don't have much completed work to show for it.
The Right Way (for Your Productivity, Performance, Mental Health...)
In the morning, the first thing you do is give yourself some time to wake up. You go through a morning ritual of a few things you like doing and that help you wake up and get a good start to the day, before you ever interact with an electronic device.
Once you start work, you start with a sense of priorities. You know the most important thing you can do to move towards your goal, today. You spend time doing that (and only that) for as long as you can maintain focus. You reserve busywork for the parts of the day during which you know your focus is in a lull anyway.
You batch as much of your busywork as possible. You check and triage your inbox once or twice a day. Instead of constantly hovering between work, leisure and social media, you take deliberate breaks from work, after completing chunks of focused tasks. You get up, walk away and take a few minutes to rest or reply to social messages.
When your work day ends, there's something else waiting for you, that you're passionate about. Maybe you're training for the next half marathon, taking cooking classes with friends, or working on a community project. You pursue this hobby or interest with a passion and you're so into it that it takes your mind completely off of the day's work.
When you spend time with friends and family, you prioritize them. You're fully present with the people you care about and you know that whatever's going on on your phone can wait.
You go to bed satisfied and exhausted - but in the good way, as a result of a full, busy, productive day.
Focus Enriches Everything
Do you feel the difference in the two scenarios above? Which day would you rather have? And which one does your typical day resemble more?
Focus enriches almost everything a human can do. And that includes multitasking.
The way I see it, there are 2 factors that make multitasking in slow motion work (and differentiate it from the bad kind of multitasking):
- It's focusing on one thing at a time instead of many things at once. When you work, you focus on one important thing and nothing else. Then, you take a break and fully step away. When you're not a work, you focus on what you're doing instead of still thinking about and worrying about work.
- The "serious hobby" factor: stepping away from working on your business to pursuing your hobby or passion let's your brain and body switch gears. Switching from one business project to another means you never really get a break from business stuff. There's no recovery in that.
What Have Your Most Productive Times Looked Like?
Focus is hugely important. Heck, I even sell a course called "focus & action". But that doesn't mean you should only ever focus on one thing. This is worth saying because in entrepreneurial circles, single minded obsession with achieving business success is seen as a good thing.
This is why I wanted to bring the concept of multitasking in slow motion to your attention. I can also clearly see in my past that having some balance between work and non-work stuff makes me far more productive. My most productive times have been those during which I've worked with great focus (a.k.a. distraction free) and I've also had some totally non-work related project that I was super passionate about. Whether that was training martial arts, learning about nutrition or trying to get stronger in the gym.
Conversely, it's when I get distracted and when I don't have a passion project on the side that I burn out quickly and my productivity takes a nose dive.
Do you see the same pattern in your life? Think about your most and least productive periods in the last 2 years. What did your life look like when you got the most done? And what when you were the most stuck? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
Links & Resources
Here are some further links and resources for things I mentioned in the video:
- To learn more about flow states, read the book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, watch this video summary by Paul McCarthy and check out Mihaly's TED talk.
- The book Range by David Epstein is a fascinating read and goes deep into the topic of single-skill specialists vs. Jacks of all trades.
- The Ronald Burt quote about creativity being an import/export business I got from the book Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg.
If you're interested to learn exactly how I develop focus and balance it with off time and non-work time, you can learn my entire productivity system here.