I’ve been buried under a lot of work lately. I don’t know what happened, but in the last 10 days or so I feel like I’m working three jobs. Paperwork, administration work, design work, vision work, writing work, misc. work.
My desk is a mess. My desktop is full of icons. My inbox is overflowing. I have a list of people to get in touch with. I have what feels like a hundred decisions to make.
I’m not complaining, I’m just observing. And the primary observation that comes out of all this is that multitasking is the fastest way to mediocrity. Things suck when you don’t give them your full attention.
I’m not thrilled with the work I’ve been doing lately.
This isn’t a breakthrough, it’s just a reminder. If you want to do great work, focus on one thing at a time. Finish it and move on to the next thing. It means some things aren’t going to get done as fast as some people may want. It means some people aren’t going to get your full attention for a while. But doing a bunch of crappy work, or making a bunch of poorly considered decisions just to get through the pile isn’t worth it.
Mike Rileyon 19 Feb 09
I know the feeling, I just started a new job a few weeks back and upon arriving here I was promptly presented with a wide variety of things to manage. Probably the worst part is that I have to learn how to do a lot of these tasks that I’ve been assigned, and absorbing information on multiple topics simultaneously just slows down my ability to learn on all fronts.
Thomas Bon 19 Feb 09
OMG! Why are you hating on the Palm Pre ! ;)
Wolfon 19 Feb 09
Printed the list on the right out yesterday, this serves as a reminder for me: http://www.practicalist.com/photos/single.jpg
S. Brent Faulkneron 19 Feb 09
I’m having a brutal time working on too many things right now and have come to the same conclusion you have.
Thanks for the independent confirmation.
Jeremy Jarvison 19 Feb 09
Heh, thanks for the reminder Jason. Very timely post as I sit here with 28 windows open – accounts, design, writing, mail :)
Frédérickon 19 Feb 09
So goddamn true…
Julianon 19 Feb 09
So, uhm, still working four days a week?
Tenacious Bon 19 Feb 09
I couldn’t agree more!
John Ratcliffe-Leeon 19 Feb 09
Can totally relate to this. Been trying to enact it more and you’re right, it’s hard to do in an on-demand world.
Ben Clemenson 19 Feb 09
I wish I knew the person who made the whiteboard in Caterina’s post: http://www.caterina.net/archive/001158.html—thanks to her and whomever it was for the practice. I made my own cheet sheet PDF (http://practicalist.com/singletasking.pdf) based on it. Singletasking: it’s a movement :)
Dustyon 19 Feb 09
This was a good book I read on the subject. There seems to be a few scientists out there who agree with you as well.
Jakeon 19 Feb 09
Ben: I first saw it on Tim Ferriss’ blog, here: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2008/08/22/the-fortune-500-4-hour-workweek-multiplying-output-in-groups-plus-downloadable-checklists/
Erico VIniciuson 19 Feb 09
Couldn’t agree more!
Such a good feeling when you can start AND finish your work, without getting more work on your way.
Chadon 19 Feb 09
Although I agree in a stable environment, in a scrappy start-up mode, with this economy, one can’t help but overwork themselves. I think the ‘focus’ thing can be overrated when pushed up against real do-or-die deadlines, particularly when it involves either selling your product successfully, or selling your stuff in a garage sale.
JFon 19 Feb 09
Although I agree in a stable environment, in a scrappy start-up mode, with this economy, one can’t help but overwork themselves.
I don’t think that’s a healthy way to start anything. Habits die hard. There’s never “more time to relax later” if the only thing you know is overworking yourself. Plus, if you think the reason you succeeded because you worked long hours, you’re going to keep working long hours. When all you know is long hours they’ll be your norm.
Joshua Blankenshipon 19 Feb 09
A cluttered desktop (of the wooden or pixelated variety) is always my warning light that I’m stretching myself in too many different directions without enough time to really finish something well. (Or at all.)
Bite-sized projects work great; half-eaten to-do lists do not.
Jasonon 19 Feb 09
I went without an office/cell phone for all of December and January… they were the two most productive months I’ve ever had!
There’s something to be said for a lack of interruption… also, people are less likely to throw “little” or “unimportant” things on your desk if they have to physically visit or try to write details in an e-mail (make them WORK to give you work… sounds backwards, I know).
It got rid of almost ALL of the little crap that came across my desk and allowed me to FOCUS on the important projects! (Can’t say enough about that… I do better work, AND more of it)
When I re-opened an office phone again for February, all the old crap came back with it. Giving serious thought to ignoring calls to all but the client du jour.
JFon 19 Feb 09
Interruption is the enemy of productivity (2006).
Ianon 20 Feb 09
It seems like this is the perpetual state of being a business owner… especially a successful one.
Bryan Sebastianon 20 Feb 09
JF, Thanks for a GREAT reminder. I have been having the same problem lately for a weird reason. Our remaining client has notified us that they will no longer being using us as of mid-March (funny that we had 3 or 4 clients a year ago).
This has actually dumped tons on my plate as we are trying to (successfully) wrap up their remaining projects and find new clients at the same time. I find that I am constantly bouncing between bidding/marketing/talking/etc. for new work and trying to complete the work we have to complete and have that work be great, which is very important.
I think I am going to take this blog article to heart and put all the new client stuff on hold until we have wrapped up our current work… and maybe take a week off in between :)
@Wolf, that is an AWESOME picture!!!
Jonon 20 Feb 09
Mike Larkinon 20 Feb 09
Ugur Gundogmuson 20 Feb 09
I totally agree. Multitasking is good, but to a certain degree.
Markon 20 Feb 09
John Medina, Brain Rules author, explains why we can’t multitask: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPB6EH2tMkE
Also, interesting slideshow at http://brainrules.net/attention
Jonon 20 Feb 09
“Multitasking is the art of distracting yourself from two things you’d rather not be doing by doing them simultaneously.”
Nice Merlin rant on multitasking: http://www.43folders.com/2005/10/20/43f-podcast-the-myth-of-multi-tasking
Anonymous Cowardon 20 Feb 09
Scotton 20 Feb 09
Great post. Thanks for the reminder. Implementing Single Task approach now.
Liamon 20 Feb 09
Today was one of those days. My best teammate just left to go on an international project and I am drowning in work – less than 24 hours after her departure. I didn’t stop moving today until 5:50pm. Forgot to eat. Back to back conference calls and crisis communications all day.
After everyone left for the evening, I took about 15 mins today to clean my desk, rid it of paper and clear off the coins and change and get some sort of caloric input in my system.
You are right – one thing at a time. The subway/metro reminded me of this tonight – sometimes when the system is overloaded they go to singletracking – one train at a time. That is what I need to do – singletracking for my day.
This is hard to do when you have multiple people stopping by your desk all day, but you have to stay disciplined. Make checklists, keep stacks, use your calendar, clean your desk each night. I found cleaning out my inbox does the same thing.
Most importanly, take breaks. Take a walk. Read your favorite blog during a lunch break. I just got the Amazon Kindle 2.0 and I can’t wait to take it with me to work – that will be a great gadget for work breaks.
It is important to switch gears and read something not work-related. My biggest accomplishment this week that gave me a ton of creative energy – I finished a 697 page book about vampires.
Keep up the great work guys. 37signals keeps me balanced.
Happyon 20 Feb 09
I was watching the recording of David Heinemeier Hansson’s live chat with that ActsAsConference attendees and was impressed with his statement at the outset that though remote, the attendees had his “undivided attention”. Classy and productive.
Also impacted by multitasking: personal relationships. I need to remember that when I am talking with someone, they deserve my full attention. There is no reason not to shut the laptop screen and have a real conversation. Making sure others in your work environment understand when you are, and when you are not, available for interruptions helps. This is especially true when that someone is in my immediate family and the little lack-of-attention exchange can set the mood in the house for the whole night.
martinjyon 20 Feb 09
I agree, but if you work for The Man, convincing him of this is not easy.
Edmunditoon 20 Feb 09
JF, you’re reading my mind with this post.
Ken Krogueon 20 Feb 09
Multitasking is a pipedream. What it really is is short shifts in attention to lot’s of half-finished jobs. Focus is absolutely required to finish.
shailendraon 20 Feb 09
Most disruptive of efficiency can be – multitasking and communicating. Both require terrible switching mode of skills in practice and, this may create a short circuit. All the best. A power meditation of 5min every 2 hours can be so relaxing and, increasing efficiency.
Saurabh Gargon 20 Feb 09
I wish I could agree !
IMHO multitasking might invite mediocrity but I would rather be jack of all trades and master of none. With democratization and collaboration allowed by the Internet, there is going to be a master of everything under the sun.
And I should be able to use these experts rather than becoming an expert in something !
Arik Joneson 20 Feb 09
People who say they can multitask are kidding themselves. The sad part is they get no more done than a person who isn’t multitasking.
I do far better work when I’m not multitasking and the benefits of doing one task well far outweigh the less than great results I get from multitasking.
Paulon 20 Feb 09
You are right, but you have also missed what Jason is talking about.
There is a difference between being a jack of all trades, and spending all our time trying to work on five different things at the same time.
The former is a definite good thing, being able to turn your hand to many things. The latter just makes you unproductive due to the constant context switching.
Christopheron 20 Feb 09
As longtime geek AND former sales at the phone guy I can appreciate your media politics very much. 1. Email is for business communications (fax is for wimps et al) and 2. the phone is for the boss to get people to do what he wants them to do.
Peteron 20 Feb 09
@Wolf: love your list, just printed it out and taped it on the wall.
Jordanon 20 Feb 09
Sounds familiar Jason, I’ve not seen about 80% of my desk for weeks, and my ‘drafts’ folder has about six half-written e-mails in it—one from a fortnight ago!
Things on my iPhone is the only thing (heh) keeping me sane right now.
hugoon 20 Feb 09
Wise words! Thanks for reminding me!
vladon 20 Feb 09
that’s totally my life for the last month or so. L Although I’ve more than ever motivated to do all these things, multitasking is just not helping me getting the right things done efficiently.
I guess, at some point one needs to cut out even “cool-sounding” activities and truly focus on the 1-2 essential ones, until the rush passes, but if things keep accumulating it just won’t work…
My point is: should I burn the pile of junk paper on my desk with gas or with formol?
Rasterfieldon 20 Feb 09
I think focusing and concentrating on one thing at a time is what smart* people do. (*the bench mark of “Smart” is very.) These people seem quick to give and shift their attentions one after another.
There is no crappy work, there is favored work.
vkon 20 Feb 09
This is why C64 was a better computer than anything we have today.
I’m not kidding.
Corinneon 20 Feb 09
I don’t know anything about management, but I’ve heard of something called delegation… is there no-one else you can trust any of these tasks with?
Colinon 20 Feb 09
I just finished a task I had failed to do for 2 days because I’m constantly multitasking. I came in to work 2 hours earlier than usual and it took me an hour and a half to complete. I observe myself failing to be productive all the time. We all just have to figure out a way to get around it when we need to.
Cheryl Smithon 20 Feb 09
Wow – well said!
My desk is a wreck at the moment and my to do list is long. Maybe it’s time for a little refocusing myself. Good words. Thanks!
SUon 20 Feb 09
John McTigueon 20 Feb 09
Believe it or not, as you get older (I’m a whopping 53!) it gets easier to focus on one thing at a time, because it’s too hard to process mutiple tasks! Too hard to remember all the tasks on your list too. I guess this rule applies up to a point, then you just can’t focus on anything at all – time to go fishing permanently at that point.
Michael Dubakovon 20 Feb 09
Multitasking is a bad thing in all cases. In personal life and in software development. When you have many features in progress it is a bad sign and indeed may cause lower quality. I have many responsibilities as well and working hard to delegate as many as I can.
Cillaon 20 Feb 09
I have just started using a written system called Autofocus, developed by Mark Forster. It has helped me tremendously to call down the multi-tasking woes. Sometimes I get so many tasks to do, it is paralyzing. With this system, I can concentrate on one thing at a time, even in short bursts, and my productivity has shot up.
Try out this simple system, and see if it helps you!
susanon 20 Feb 09
Favorite MONO-tasking mantra: Everything we do is an act of poetry or a painting if we do it with mindfulness. ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Gregon 20 Feb 09
for the last 2 weeks I have been setting my watch timer for 33 minutes and 33 seconds. I then pick one thing to work on and totally focus on that thing. I don’t look at email or twitter or answer the phone. When time is up I release my self for a break. Then reset the timer and focus. Break. Reset. Work. Repeat.
Read this on a blog, but can’t recall where. It is working well for me.
John Wrighton 20 Feb 09
Good stuff. I practice single-tasking l “power hours”, which is single-tasking with a personal challenge, where I challenge myself to work at as high intensity and focus as I can for one hour towards some specific goal, I vary them a lot. I use TinyAlarm for the Mac. I only send emails during that time, no checking. I try to get only 2-4 power hours in per day on programming. It doesn’t sound like a lot but for me it’s enough. I love the rush you get when you are focused, I get so much happiness and self-confidence from it.
Oh yes, I log/journal everything I can so I can pick up where I left off on all my key projects during power hours.
David Ron 20 Feb 09
I should stop reading this right now. Bye, back to work.
Sherman Dickmanon 20 Feb 09
This issue has driven many of the design decisions in Postbox. We enable people to quickly establish a working context; focus on what’s important (not urgent); and minimize interruptions and distractions from messages outside of their current context.
@David R – agreed, how did I land on this site anyway?
Josh Chandleron 21 Feb 09
I see multitasking as a positive way to succeed, for example if my college tutor sets me three assignments to achieve within a week, I have to take into account how to complete the tasks, which could involve many sections of both research and writing. I keep myself more effective, rather then efficient by multitasking, if you set yourself smaller more managable tasks the idea of multitasking isn’t that bad! If you take giant strides with multiple tasks then of course you won’t be as effective!
Peter Styleson 21 Feb 09
Thought provoking – so thank you. And I think the post flirts with, and just missed, the broader ‘truth’.
More often than not we’re not in control of our destiny … tasks are unexpectedly forced on us that we require response (bugs, fraud, illness, changing economic circumstances) – so there’s not an easy tap we can turn off. We can reduce the number as tasks by saying ‘no’ to some … the art is knowing how to say no. How do you manage the politics of ‘no’ in a world that likes to say ‘yes’? Each person needs to discover their own inner ‘no’ ... and I’ve only met two people that can say ‘no’ well.
But even when we can use ‘no’ with a high degree of genius the tap can’t be turned off. Multi tasking is a reality of living.
So the real trick is to expect that multi-tasking will be required. Life will throw you some curve balls that can’t be denied. In order to be able to cope with this start will less.
When committing to battle a commander often holds back 2/3 of his troops to deal with the unexpected.
We should schedule out our time to make sure there’s enough space for the unexpected (in my experience at least 50% of life is taken up with the unexpected) ... because the real enemy of thinking is not multi tasking … it’s pressure and galloping stress. When it all feels like ‘too much’ is when your stuffed.
Gregon 21 Feb 09
For humans, multitasking is an illusion. There is only rapid context switching with a single core processor. It has real limits.
Abhishekon 21 Feb 09
I’m not sure about work environment, I hope there will be a manager dividing the task and giving me a portion of it. As a student, yeah I am going through something like this, trying to manage multiple things and finally crashing down. What I’ve done is to cut short on tasks, postponed a lot of them and just doing one at a time, by doing one at a time, I mean not even to think about other ones. Simple thinking about “oh my got I got 6 jobs to do” really takes away all my energy and enthusiasm. I agree to Greg – multitasking is an illusion. While I’m already multitasking with education and side projects, I yet feel its tough to multi-task :P
VickyHon 21 Feb 09
I think some people may be missing the point.
I think Jason is talking about multiple area multitasking and when your working your butt off and still can’t get caught up. I consider that to be overwhelming whether your multitasking or not.
I think that basic (can get my 40 hour a week job done in 40 hours) multitasking is an advantage, this is why.
First, many times only after taking a break from a project and working on something else can my mind come back and truly look objectively at the situation. If it’s your project, your vision than your the best person to think it out, works for me.
Second, boredom can be an issue. It’s not fun (for me at least) to work on the same project for a full week. I enjoy multitasking as a way to keep each project fresh (as long as your not on overload, of course).
Third, many times your waiting for something. A phone call, an email, more information, ect. You can’t just put what your doing on hold and moving forward without enough information I think is foolish and a waste of time.
Fourth, I think employers look for well rounded people. The more skilled and experienced you are in projects that are in the same area that have different dimensions the more valuable you are to that employer and to other employers when/if you ever look for a new job.
In essence, I think multitasking is good as long as it’s not taken to an extreme to where you are either overwhelmed or are pulled in too many different areas.
Agree/Disagree? Would love to hear other people’s opinions.
Ernie Oportoon 22 Feb 09
Wasn’t it Einstein who said you can do one thing well or two things at the same time poorly?
Roderick van Domburgon 23 Feb 09
Being buried under work usually is a great sign of either of two things:
1. You’ve taken up too much work. Which part of it is truly essential? It can be confronting to realize what work isn’t all that essential. Somehow it always manages to slip in.
2. It’s time to hire more staff. Great, business is going well! When businesses grow, your staffing needs to expand accordingly. When there isn’t the money, then see #1.
Tom von Schwerdtneron 23 Feb 09
Multitasking is a myth. You can’t write multiple proposals at once, you can’t work on multiple webapps at once and you can’t give your attention to multiple clients at once. Chances are if you think you’re multitasking you’re either breaking up and prioritizing your tasks well (which is good, but not “multitasking”), or you aren’t giving any task your full attention (eg, responding to client A’s email while on a conference call with client B). It’s a misleading term that has turned into a professional talking point and – in my opinion – it needs to be purged from our productivity vocabularies.
Johnon 23 Feb 09
Vicky – you’re not describing multitasking, you’re describing switching tasks in order to stay fresh, which is a great way to work. Multitasking is when you’re answering email, talking on the phone, and writing something all “at once” – meaning you’re sucking at all of them at that moment!
Daxii Articleson 26 Feb 09
having many tasks is great, but you must learn how to outsource work.
Michaelon 26 Feb 09
I was just reading your post but then the printer called with an issue, someone stopped by needing a photo, I got some e-mail I’m waiting on, and I’m eating. Now what were you saying? I lost my place.
This discussion is closed.