You’re Not Good at Multitasking

In computer science, the concept of a computer’s processor switching from one system to another is referred to as context switching, where the computer switches from updating your gmail browser page over to your Microsoft Word application, etc.  Computers are very good at this, but people are horrible at this.

Everyone, myself included, thinks we’re great multi-taskers who are great at juggling lots of things at once, and we’re so much faster doing that than stopping to focus on one thing at a time.  While this sounds intuitive, it’s usually horribly wrong.  Not only are you slower overall when juggling lots of different things, you also can’t significantly advance the important/complex work — instead you’re often attracted to, and only make progress in, tactical/shallow work.

Cal Newport, a professor at Georgetown, has written a great book (Deep Work) on this concept of how important/valuable work happens when you ignore everything else, you don’t check Facebook every 6 minutes, and you instead really focus on the important, complex work that is valuable.  A similar book I’ve heard great things about is Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows.

There are techniques that can help in this vein, like the Pomodoro Technique, where you intensely focus on a single task for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break, repeat that cycle 3 more times, and then take a half-hour break.

Another concept is to check your email only a few times a day (2-3 times), and intensely review/groom/action your inbox during these times, instead of checking in on it every few minutes, you’ll be much faster.

Paul’s Graham wrote a great essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, about the difference between the work schedule of makers (e.g. software developers, business analysts) and managers (leaders who are focused on making decisions through a series of reviews and meetings), which is related to this concept that if you’re a maker, you need to dedicate significant blocks of time to advancing important/complex things.

Not only is focusing on one things overall faster, it can also be a much more effective way to deliver value more frequently — instead of slowly advancing 10 big initiatives, if you finish 1 before moving to the first, it means that first thing got complete and delivered value faster, which is great (one of Agile’s great values is encouraging/forcing people/teams to actually prioritize their work and then force prioritized progress within timeboxes — check out Great Big Agile by Jeff Dalton for some great techniques for this within a team/organization context).

It’s hard to do in today’s frenetic, distracted world; but when you can carve out intensely focused time, you’ll accomplish important things much faster than you would trying to advance everything all at once.

(James Hance is an awesome artist, who does amazing mashups.  This one, The Meep is a great mashup of Edvard Munch’s 1910 The Scream and Beaker from the Muppets — you can buy a print of The Meep at

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