How to Multitask Effectively as a Multipotentialite
Photo courtesy of LaVladina.

How to Multitask Effectively as a Multipotentialite

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Productivity

Multitasking gets a bad rap. We’re told not to do it–that it’s inefficient and that it prevents us from focusing fully on anything. But what is multitasking exactly? And could it be reframed to become a helpful tool in our kit?

First… Does Multitasking Even Exist?

What is multitasking? The truth is that what we call multitasking depends on what timescale we’re looking at. If I do two different things in a year, is that multitasking? What about a week? Or an hour? Or a second?

It’s all about semantics. I would probably call a morning juggling five different activities “multitasking” but logically in any given instant I can only do one specific activity.

Even computers don’t play music and display video and load webpages and perform calculations all at once. In reality each of those tasks is broken into tiny pieces to go through the processor sequentially. Everything appears to happen simultaneously because the processor handles this switching so fast.

My fellow pedants might want to note that multicore processors can genuinely do more than one thing at once, but that just proves my point: we had to invent special hardware with multiple brains to truly multitask! Our brains can consciously only perform a single task at a time.

Okay, imaginary pedants, yes, our brains also handle breathing and heartbeats and things. But you get what I mean:

What we call multitasking is really just rapid task-switching.

This is a skill in its own right, and a very useful one. Better multi-taskers can switch between tasks rapidly, while others struggle to get themselves up to speed after changing task.

Creating a Rhythm for the Day

What if, instead of “multitasking”, we chose a sensible number of tasks to perform throughout a day, and picked a system for alternating between them?

Think of it as a rhythm. An hour of this; an hour of that. Or, if I’m doing a Pomodoro-style workday, five minutes of this, then thirty of that.

I recently started thinking of my workday as a series of rhythms that I could play with. Instead of a long day sitting in front of the computer, I could alternate long periods of typing with short periods of household chores.

This isn’t the most fun rhythm in the world–and nor is it a revolutionary idea–but I found this perspective motivated me to continually feel energised by whatever I was doing.

Creating a Rhythm for Your Life

People sometimes act like multitasking is reasonable for a day, but crazy over a lifetime. I disagree.

Just as I might spend a morning switching between chores and project work, what is stopping me from spending a decade alternating between creative work and education? Or family? Or menial work? Or whatever I might choose to prioritize for a time.

The speed at which we alternate between roles changes the rhythm of life.

The rhythm of life could be one long pulse of picking a career and sticking to it. Or it could be faster, irregular, alternating, mixed, or new every time.

We can intertwine rhythms, too. How about spending a year where half of each week is salaried work, half is freelance? Or half is education? Or some other fraction?

Pick the Rhythm You Want to Play – For Now

Life decisions often feel stressful, but perhaps it would feel freeing to frame them mentally as “just a change in the rhythm…for a bit”.

Committing to a few years doesn’t have to feel constraining. It’s just part of the rhythm I’m choosing to play. And the same goes for alternating rapidly between many tasks. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I can remind myself that I’ve chosen to play a fast rhythm for a while. But it’ll slow down later.

Sometimes the right rhythm is going to be slow, and sometimes it’s going to be fast – either way it’s just for a time, and afterwards, we can always choose a new pace.

Your Turn

What’s the rhythm of your life at the moment? Does it differ from the rhythm you’d like to have? 

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at walkingoncustard.com and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

20 Comments

  1. Aarti says:

    Hey Neil, thanks for this very timely post!

    I’m home for a long weekend. Right before reading this post I suddenly remembered that I have work tomorrow. At home, it feels like I’ve snoozed the alarm for way too long, and now it’s the dreaded time to finally start the day (well, tomorrow). I think I should start reorienting myself into switching to a new rhythm(s) for tomorrow to rock the week multipod style.

    (This was a self reassuring + gratitude filled comment, apt for a post on multi-tasking? Shoot the semantics!)

    Cheers!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fantastic Aarti, I always like when a post comes at the right time :)

      Yeah, for me it’s just about finding the right frame for picturing what what needs doing. If I think of it as a giant crushing todo list it becomes very depressing. But thinking of it rhythmically is much lighter, despite it being the same tasks that I need to work on :D

      Hope your week is getting off to a delightful start!

  2. Anna says:

    Thank you! You put into words exactly what was bothering me about all these articles on monotasking. Anyone who takes care of children clearly knows that it is imperative to multitask. It’s really just semantics. I like it reframed as task switching.

    I also like the idea of rhythm. When I think about it, the days I am most productive do, indeed, have a rhythm to them.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely! And while we might be able to task switch really rapidly for an hour or two (feed the baby, stir the pot, hoover the floor, write a few words, repeat), we can’t keep up that fast a rhythm constantly. Viewing how we task-switch on different timescales is a useful self-review :)

  3. Felicity says:

    I love the idea of creating rhythms for days! I need a certain amount of task-switching to stay interested, but obviously too much is overwhelming. Calling it a rhythm makes a ton of sense.

    I’m currently trying to change my rhythm both at work and at home. At work thankfully I can switch projects and change my rhythm without too much difficulty — just a fair bit of interviewing and such. At home it’s theoretically easier to change my rhythm, but easier to get too comfortable and procrastinate.

    I’ve found visualizing my schedule and thinking about what I’d like to accomplish for the day helps a ton. Just got to stick with it and be dedicated. ;)

  4. Andy Murphy says:

    I find this discussion quite useful. One thing I learned was that I am not professionally competent at FAST AND ABRUPT changes of tasks, such as a typical office secretary would do, balancing books one moment and cheerily greeting a customer in person or on the phone the next. I failed abysmally at that job.

    However, I do multitask within the scope of a day or morning: in my case, teaching an English lesson online for half an hour, then translating a website for 45 minutes, and taking a break from translating by practicing music for fifteen minutes, and then teaching another half-hour English class, etc.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is exactly the kind of self-knowledge I was talking about! Some of us aren’t great at abrupt task-switching, some of us find it easier. (I suspect it massively depends on the kinds of tasks, too!)

      Sounds like you’ve found a rhythm which works for you :)

  5. Sienna says:

    You know, I’ve always been very firm on the fact that I can’t multitask, and additionally on the fact that neither can anyone else. The whole “multitasking doesn’t exist” thing is one piece of my worldview that’s remained stubbornly consistent for years. But in reading this I might have a few fresh ideas about the concept of multitasking! It’s given me a lot to pick at in my own preconceptions of a) what’s physically possible and b) what my own limits and constraints actually are.

    (Also, I once used the “trying to force a computer to do two things at once will make it crash” metaphor and a friend of mine actually DID step into the role of pedant to inform me about multicore processing. Fantastic.)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ha, always happy to challenge your worldview, Sienna ;)

      Yup, it all comes down to what we choose to call “multitasking”. On a timescale of seconds, it doesn’t exist, but over hours, it arguably does. Discovering how able we are personally at fitting several tasks into a single hour is useful, but whether we want to call it ‘multitasking’ or not isn’t really important. I think ‘fast rhythm / slow rhythm’ is a more accurate reflection of what’s really happening and might help us to apportion our energy more appropriately.

      (Then afterwards, we can look on longer timescales, too – which is even more interesting for a multipod!)

      (And yay for pedantry!)

  6. Gillian says:

    Thanks for addressing this issue. Many people have called me crazy. I can cook a meal and do laundry and….and… all at the same time. For the most part, I have been very proud of my “superhuman” strength. People have under appreciated my talents but so have I.

    Which prompted me to get organized. Calendars and post it notes are all over the walls. And to keep me on the straight and narrow, I use a timer when I’m under the gun writing a story. And when household chores are on the agenda, I turn on the music to keep me from being a heap in front of the TV.

    So I agree, understanding your own internal rhythm is an important tool. Combined with meditation and the organizational props I use, they help me tap into creative energy continuously sparking within me. I have come to appreciate my spirit. Becoming less and less hard on myself. I understand I can’t do everything I want to do. But I’m gonna try! :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Fantastic! Exactly, Gillian, it’s all about understanding our own rhythms :) Thank you for sharing!

  7. Joshua Cartwright says:

    I tend to work on thought-intensive projects for a while, then go wash the pots, clean the kitchen do the hoovering etc. Since creative work is often like the ‘reps and relax’ rhythm of weight training it works well as ‘up’ and ‘down’ time for me.

    Joshua, author of The Millionaire Silence

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Perfect! I also keep a list of ‘mindless’ tasks which I try to do in between breaks in creative work :) it works great for me too :D

  8. Amy Johnson says:

    Great post! I definitely feel the need to break up my day and create better rhythms than what folks might traditionally impose.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Amy :) Yes, we can’t always choose our own rhythm but when we get the chance to, it’s always worth doing it mindfully

  9. Gabriela says:

    Speaking of rhythm …
    Does a drummer playing a drum kit with each arm and foot operating a different stick or pedal actually multitask?

    My job requires me to switch constantly, sometimes it takes a moment or only a breath.
    And then I side gig on my lunch break or evenings. I used to grade papers while cooking dinner but that often did not turn out well(for dinner).

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ha, yeah you don’t want to neglect dinner!

      Great question. Of course, on one level we’re all multitasking all the time – breathing, heartbeat, moving fingers… but I think once a skill gets into the realm of “muscle memory” it gets rounded up into a single task in our minds.

      For example, I’m not individually thinking about keypresses now – “typing” is a skill my brain has learned so it doesn’t have to think about each signal to each nerve in my fingers. It’s the same if I play piano – I don’t think about each note individually, I think about the piece and trust my fingers to do the right thing. Drumming will very similar I imagine, where the ‘conscious task’ is concentrating on the right rhythm, and trusting muscle memory to do the work.

      In many ways, I guess this is the basics of skill acquisition: automating things which used to be effortful, so we can concentrate on ever higher levels!

  10. Mei says:

    I just came home from the cardiologist to read about rhythms. Is it a sign?

    • Neil Hughes says:

      :D
      I guess that’s for you to decide what the universe might be saying! I hope all is well in all your rhythms from your heart through to your daily routine :)