What the Behavior of World-Class Scientists Tells Us About Productivity & Multitasking

By now, it's common knowledge that multitasking is a myth. Multitasking makes you slower, less focused and less productive (sources).

BUT...

...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.

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What is Multitasking in Slow Motion?

Multitasking in slow motion is a concept introduced by Tim Harford in this TED talk:

Watch on TED.com - Watch on YouTube

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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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 freeand 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!

Shane's Signature

Links & Resources

Here are some further links and resources for things I mentioned in the video:

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.

About the Author Shane Melaugh

I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.

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  • Michael Hartrich says:

    It’s simple:
    Zoom in = focus
    Zoom out = relax, enjoy, hang loose

    • Will says:

      Going deeper :
      Zoom in – Which one first, all seem to be on priority list ;)
      Zoom out – For too long ;))

  • Mary says:

    Loved this video, Shane.

    I’m currently in the exact worng state you describe at the 10′ mark (and then again at 16′). It’s awful, draining and I feel hopeless. I’ve been like this for a couple of months now and feeling more and more stressed out about it.

    I’m in f&a and it was great in the first part of the year, but after the summer holidays I just can’t seem to get back to a productive work schedule. I do have a serious hobby now (learning japanese), but can’t seem to be able to do that either – I just feel too guilty about not working. The financial pressure is high and I believe that’s what’s preventing me from doing anything else – yet my work motivation is zero. I could have done so much more this year, but I just didn’t want to work. When I say it, it sounds silly and irracional.

    I don’t really know how to get myself out of this, so I just bought the book Range you recommended. I also think I’ll start doing something like the morning pages and see if that gets me unblocked.

    • Hi Mary,

      Sorry to see you’re suffering from this right now. Maybe this helps: can you start by acknowledging that putting more pressure on yourself and making yourself feel worse and guiltier for not working enough doesn’t help? And it still wouldn’t help if you put even more pressure on yourself and made yourself feel even worse.

      Also note that focus & action can be a great system, but if you fall out of those habits and then try to force yourself to take them all on at once again, it can be too much. In the course, we build it up gradually and that’s part of what makes it work. I would suggest trying to apply just a few of the concepts from the course at first and ease yourself back into the process.

      • Mary says:

        Thanks Shane! Yes, going back to f&a and taking it one lesson at a time sounds like the good thing to do! The course is really well structured and thorough so I know I can pick it off in some part that will be just what I need right now. Thanks for that!

        Also this: “can you start by acknowledging that putting more pressure on yourself and making yourself feel worse and guiltier for not working enough doesn’t help?”. Totally. I believe me leaving a comment here was the first step for that. I’ve reflected a lot since and can definitely come to this conclusion. So thank you for your video, which gave me an opportunity to do so!

    • Justin Shane says:

      Mary, as a lifelong entrepreneur, I too fall in and out of this state where I torment myself with the ever nagging notion that… I should be working all the time, but on what, when, where…

      I become someone I don’t really admire when in this state of being and my productivity falls off sharply into non-existence.

      My hack for busting out of this mode is simple… I fall back on the words of an awesome man I worked for when I was 15. He became more of a mentor than a boss and I’ll always be grateful he made time to expand my mind!

      Simple Words > Big Results… The very first day on the job he began our journey together with these words:

      “When we work, we work and when we break, we break. We don’t break when we’re working and we don’t work when we’re breaking!”

      Structuring my work time and limiting it to certain hours of the day or night always gets me back on track. I quickly become more productive and mentally healthy where once again I feel good in my own skin.

      So, I agree with Shane about having structured work time and the importance thereof.

      I’m exceptionally creative and it’s a constant sort of battle to keep myself in the right productive space instead of rolling off-the-rails like a runaway carnival ride – lol…

      Mary, you’re doing an outstanding job with your website. Get back in there and keep up the good work!

      • Thanks for sharing your insights on this!

      • Mary says:

        Thank you Justin for such an empathetic and kind comment! Yes, your ex-boss’ words are full of wisdom! And fairly easy to get :)

        I think I’ve started to do better since I allowed myself to express my pain here, it kind of gave me back some clarity. With your words and Shane’s I have something practical to work on which doesn’t feel daunting or like ‘too much’.

        Setting clear time limits for myself, and respecting those. Will keep that in mind!

  • tim.bader1@gmail.com says:

    I agree with your conclusion Shane, but I’m not so sure about the “multi-tasking in slow motion” premise!
    If it’s focusing on one thing at a time and taking breaks to do other things, then it’s not really multi-tasking at all, is it?

  • Raul says:

    Great post. I find the implications very refreshing. So maybe not about multi-tasking, if tasks are done one after another, but it seems to contradict the one-thing theory. The fact that doing two-things, we can be even better on each of them. I would like to add a point in favour of this theory, and also a point against, or better said, to restrict the times when it makes effect. In favour, I would like to say that I see that I have noticed that some brands do better when they “multi-task”. As an example to illustrate it, I want to comment that I am in the jewelry industry. So I thought for many years that the thing we are supposed to do is good jewelry. So customers will be happy. On what else could we strategically focus? But it happens that when you see an advertisement of many big jewelry brands, they do not even show jewelry. They have moved away from the product to become icons of something. They become real activists about some cause the society need. And they do better with this way of multi-tasking and not just doing jewelry. Better even making products. But now, I want to speak against this new found theory, or to express my doubts on an early stage of the company, after testing what do do, and when it want to introduce a new product in the market. On that part, I think the focus of the one thing is still better. Anycase, this multi-tasking seems ideal to have time for hobbies being even more productive, generate more innovation and for companies to find a way to excel, be activists and become meaningful for society.

  • Good afternoon. I liked your article. The brain of people prone to false multitasking is focused on quickly receiving rewards, so they are poorly aware of the delayed risks that work carries with it. Most people’s brains are capable of processing a limited number of stimuli in a given amount of time. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for decision making and behavior planning, works on the principle of a multi-channel telephone. The study shows that those who most often consider themselves successful in multitasking cope with it the worst. Good luck.

  • Krsnendu says:

    Agree with your ideas.
    1. Focus
    2. Take a complete break
    3. Have at least one non-work related interest.

    I find if I only do work without enough true breaks I am not productive.

    For me running is my break. I used to listen to business training and podcasts during runs but now I find it get a better break if I don’t listen to anything, or just listen to running related content.

    Allows me to go back to work with much more focus… physically and mentally.

    Having different interests also allows cross-pollination of ideas.

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