The Simultaneous-Sequencial Spectrum, and How To Balance a “Primary” Focus with All of Your Other Interests
Photo courtesy of DieselDemon.

The Simultaneous-Sequencial Spectrum, and How To Balance a “Primary” Focus with All of Your Other Interests

There are many different kinds of multipotentialites. Barbara Sher breaks it down into several specific categories (the “double agent” the “sybill,” etc. My approach is a little less sophisticated.

I like to think that multipods exist on a spectrum of sequential to simultaneous. On the sequential side of the spectrum there are those who love doing one thing at a time for a period of weeks, months or years, and then they switch to an entirely new thing and focus on only that. This is the person who has chosen to have six month contracts in their freelance business or the person who makes radical career shifts and changes fields entirely every few years.

Apparently, Ben Franklin would get things done by dedicating 13 weeks to accomplishing one goal and then 13 weeks for the next. This is a great example of working in sequence.

On the simultaneous side of the spectrum, you have the plate-spinner: someone who thrives having twenty different projects on the go at any one time. This person might choose to have a career that requires them to work with big teams across multiple disciplines, wear many hats and shift roles frequently.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of this simultaneous-sequential spectrum and sometimes we slink along the spectrum, depending on the nature of our goals and where we’re at internally.

I got an email from a multipotentialite the other day who told me that he was conflicted because his main focus right now is college basketball. But at the same time he has music, software and movie ideas that keep popping up and getting his wheels turning.

One of the ways to approach this is to set an hour aside each day for your projects. Set a timer and declare it “tinkering time” (or something of that nature). That way you don’t start resenting your main focus for holding you back from your other interests.

The other approach is one that this young multipod suggested himself. It’s the sequential approach. You dedicate a period of weeks or months to one project and wear only that hat, dive in fully, and put your other projects on the back-burner for a while. You can also assign your other projects to future months to make it easier on you.

Both approaches can work, and it really depends on the nature of your projects and on where you fall on the spectrum. In this case, he said that the basketball lifestyle and music/media/arts lifestyle were too different in nature and he was having a hard time pivoting between them, always feeling like he wasn’t making enough progress on either. In this case, I agree that the sequential approach makes a lot of sense.

At the same time, I often hear from multipotentialites who have one primary focus and are starting to feel antsy that they aren’t getting to pursue their other passions (I get this question from college students a lot). In this scenario, I would recommend dedicating period of time each day for your other interests.

The key here is using a timer. Or even dedicating one day at the end of your week to your other interests. Just make it a defined amount of time so you don’t start to feel guilty for neglecting your primary focus. Your “tinkering time” can even be used as a reward for when you get a lot done.

Your Turn

Where do you fall on the simultaneous-sequential spectrum? How do you deal with competing goals pulling for your attention?

em_authorbioEmilie Wapnick is the Founder and Creative Director at Puttylike, where she helps multipotentialites integrate ALL of their interests into their lives. Unable to settle on one path herself, Emilie studied music, art, film production and law, graduating from the Law Faculty at McGill University. She is an occasional rock star, a paleo-friendly eater and a wannabe scientist. Learn more about Emilie here.

26 Comments

  1. Evelina says:

    This is a very helpful post for me at this time. I just recently took a step back to see how much time I was spending on things that are not really important to me and just pure day dreaming. Turns out it is a lot.
    I will give the timer a shot!
    Once again thanks for the post Emilie. Hope all is well and keep up the fantastic work. :)

    Evelina

  2. Vincent Imbat says:

    This site has taught me a lot about myself – my nature and body rhythm. And after experimenting for sometime, I discovered that I am sequential particularly in making big life and career decisions (like studying history at college then pursuing entrepreneurship after) yet I am simultaneous when doing tasks throughout a week, sometimes even within a day. I easily get bored at doing one thing and feel guilty about not moving forward with my other goals. So I circle around different interests on scheduled blocks of time each day throughout a week while pursuing one major project/major career goal/gig. Right now, I also see to it that I balance health and financials in order to live my passions successfully. Thanks for this post Emilie!

    • Emilie says:

      That’s awesome, Vincent. I really like how you’ve managed to integrate parts of the simultanious lifestyle within a sequential framework. Very cool!

      Are the various interests that you cycle through all related to your major project in some way? Or are some of them related to completely unrelated topics, too?

      • Vincent Imbat says:

        Yes Emilie. The various interests that I cycle through are mostly related to each other. Inspired by your older posts, I studied alternative lifestyle and entrepreneurship these past months. When I feel bored I started experimenting on building amateur blogs and studying web design, which as you’ve shown through many of your posts and at Renaissance Business, are related to starting a lifestyle business. When I feel I need a break, I travel at local spots here in the Philippines, then I play my usual video games, and sometimes, when inspired, build the plots and characters for a novel I am working on :)

  3. Niki says:

    I’m a little bit of both. I like to have 2 or 3 primary things that I’m working on (learning Spanish, practicing yoga, and reading tarot) then everything falls in a consequential manner. Or sometimes I mix them up a little. For example, I’d put primary focus on Spanish for a week, which means I dedicate 50% of my free time to learning, listening, reading, or writing in Spanish, then I’ll do 20% to practicing yoga and another 20% to tarot, then the rest, at 10% can be about anything. Like if I read something about a topic that I thought was interesting, I might spend an hour just reading about it online.

    I try not to be too rigid about it. Some days my brain can’t take anymore Spanish so I focus on practicing more yoga. Some days, I don’t want to do anything but just read tarot. Then in between I still get (happily) side-tracked by other things but I try to keep those at a minimum or I save everything on Pocket or Evernote for later “investigating”. :D

  4. Lauren says:

    I’m a plate spinner – it drives me mad at times. I just cannot focus on anything right now! I definitely need some kind of timer, I’ll give it a try.

  5. Nela Dunato says:

    My default mode is definitely simultaneous.

    I occasionally get into really obsessive mode about a particular thing, when I’m not paying attention to anything else, but I don’t got from one thing to the next – I just sort of “wake up” from it into my regular simultaneous ways.

    Yes it’s frustrating when things keep fighting for my attention. Especially if I really committed to finish a particular project, and then shiny objects drag me off my path.

    I do need to indulge in the “shiny objects”, but if I manage to contain it to a block of time, it doesn’t hurt as much.

    Setting some kind of a rule like “ok now I’ll take a break and do 30 minutes of this thing (which often turns into 2 hours, but hey) and then I’ll keep on with my project” helps.

    Honestly, I still haven’t fond the “right” way yet. I did take your & Michelle’s Productivity course and I like the ideas, but I fall short on implementation.

  6. I’m definitely sequential. I can do something for up to 2 years, then totally and utterly lose interest in it, to the bewilderment of family and friends, and move on to something else.

  7. Julie says:

    This is very helpful. I’m feeling bad at the moment as there are lots of things I need to do to move my business on to a certain point. Whilst many of these are things I usually enjoy, I’m currently NOT enjoying them because they have to be done right now instead of other projects and interests that I would rather be spending time on.

    I think I will try your idea taking one day per week as “tinkering time” – that way I will be able to lay the foundations for my new projects and still do what my brain is telling me I “ought to be doing” :-)

    Thanks Emilie :)

  8. Keith Kehrer says:

    Yeah, focus is definitely a thing I have trouble with. I seem to be a procrastinating multi-pod, never getting anything done unless I paint myself into corner. Sequential would work for me if I could remove distractions or all the life’s fires to put out.

    Keith

  9. Debi Goldben says:

    I think I’m both, depending on the project. At the moment I work remotely for my job and go to school 4 nights a week for massage therapy. I’m blessed to be pretty smart, so studying requires minimal time. I have to remember to focus on those two “major” things FIRST and then I can fill in around the edges with other interests … DIY projects at home, building websites for family and friends, researching add-ons for my future massage practice, writing, aromatherapy, family time, reading, family time, and even a little TV chill time.

    It’s very easy for me to become completely immersed in one of my more “minor” projects … my free-writing each day continually reminds me that right now I need to stay focused on the big things (school, work, family) and that the other things will fall into my schedule somewhere along the way.

    Thanks, Em, for another great post. You have been such a huge help to me.

  10. Christina says:

    well, I started using the timer for my fitness goals… I tried coming up with elaborate, specific, scheduled work outs but my schedule changes constantly.. So what I do instead is set the timer for an hour at Least 3x a week and just move! I either dance around my home (lol), or walk or do some with out moves, or even a muc of all! And it never intervened with all my other goals. I also have a couple of projects assigned to a couple of days, but because my work schedule varies; so do my other passions allotted time; but thanks to these tips I do see some improvement and progress in all my goals! I’m definitely more simultaneous than sequential >.< but I do realize at times I gotta push back other ideas so i dont have burn out. Thanks Emilie!

  11. Michael says:

    Thanks for this Emilie. I have been thinking of this in terms of three major categories: Simultaneous, Sequential, and Cyclical. Perhaps cyclical is somewhere along your continuum between the other two. It’s a good way to describe it.

  12. Morgan Siem says:

    What a great topic. I would say that at heart I’m a sequential multipod, because I like to do things in three month contracts. I like to know the end date when I start. I also like to dive in full-tilt and put everything else on a hold. A good example is when I was trying to learn documentary film work, I opted for the 8-day intensive course (all day & night for 8 days straight) rather than the one-evening a week for a semester course. I REALLY did NOT want to juggle it into my schedule in that way and be running another thing sequentially. It felt much more sane to just take a hiatus from all my other things for 8 days to focus.

    But, the way my life is playing out these days is pretty simultaneous, and that’s working for me as well. I have three primaries that run simultaneously, broken up into days of the week. So, Monday & Tuesday I focus on my prison outreach work. Wednesdays & Thursdays I wear my marketing hat for my freelance client. Fridays & Saturdays I focus on training and performing as an aerial silks acrobat.

    For my other interests I dabble during my ‘tinkering’ slots that are on Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings. The tinkering time is usually just to keep the wheels turning until I can set aside a chunk of time to work on one of the non-primary projects.

    • Emilie says:

      Hey Morgan,

      While writing about the various people that I interviewed for my book (such as yourself), I realized that most of the peeps using the “slash approach” tend to break things up by day. I guess it gives you a bit of a sense of sequentialism within an otherwise simultaneous work setup. Of course, as you mentioned, people often shift between doing things simultaneously and diving into one thing for intense periods of time. That 8-day workshop sounds like a blast!

  13. Jessie says:

    This is one of the areas of multipotentialism – just discovered last month, through this site; massive aha moment ensued – that I’m not sure where I fit into. I dive deeply into things AND spin plates. The other thing I don’t do is quit. I actually don’t tend to move on after I’ve mastered something…I just keep on piling on new things.

    Sometimes my multipotentialism actually drives me bonkers rather than helping me thrive. Sometimes I wish I just wanted to do one thing; it would be so much simpler!

    I’m a public health professional, doula, lactation educator, food blogger, freelance writer, scuba diving instructor, triathlete/yogini/surfer, record-breaking marathon swimmer. Soon-to-be therapist, reiki practitioner and yoga instructor. And that’s just the “main stuff,” not including all my hobbies. Oh yeah, and I’m a mom.

    See how I make myself crazy?

    So, is a multipotentialite still a multipotentialite when she’s not a scanner or a diver and definitely not a quitter? How does she stay sane?

    • Emilie says:

      Wow, Jessie! So many amazing things.

      I would say that you’re definitely a multipotentialite, even though you don’t drop things. How do you handle this from a productivity standpoint? Do you ever put things on the back burner a little, just to have time for the new things and return to them later?

  14. Georgina says:

    Right now I’m not sure because the project I’m working on is my dissertation, and I’ve managed to make it through some barriers of boredom and annoyance, mostly with the “vegetables first, dessert later” approach.

    I do feel more excited if I have more than one project at the same time, but I think I have to observe myself more closely.

    I liked this post a lot :)

  15. Rachel says:

    One of my biggest problems is that almost all of my interests require maintenance. That’s to say that my interests are less project-based and more skills-based: learning languages, instruments, launching blogs and businesses, taking dance classes, etc., as opposed to, say, building a harpsichord or sewing a dress. This makes it difficult to be a sequencer, so I’m definitely more of a plate spinner, but since everything has to be maintained I usually end up with ten plates, overwhelm and frustration, not to mention motivation problems!

    One thing I’ve been considering (and this may help some people above with similar problems) is trying to find ways to turn a skill-based interest into more of a project-based one by creating a goal. For learning German, instead of thinking in terms like “I need to study 2 hours a day forever and ever,” one could focus on building competency to the point where they can read a novel. After that point, you could choose another goal or simply maintain what you learned with occasional review. For something like learning an instrument, you could make it your goal to give a recital, and then, again, focus on maintaining.

    Any other ideas on dealing with interests that don’t have an endpoint? I feel like I’m always adding to my plate but never wanting to take anything off it!

    • Lauren says:

      I very much like this idea :) I’m going to give it a try.

      • Emilie says:

        I like it too. Let us know how it turns out. Also, I wonder if there are any parts of your projects that you can outsource? Certainly not if we’re talking about skill acquisition, but like if you launch a business, perhaps you can outsource some of the maintenance work.

        • Rachel says:

          I’ll give it a try with the German and see if it helps me stay organized!

          That’s a great idea! I’d love to have a virtual assistant at some point, especially since I’ll be starting a PhD this fall and will be pressed for time.

  16. Deb H says:

    I can really relate to everyone’s comments and this post really made me think about how I work. I’m definitely a little of both. I do find that more commonly I work my BIG projects sequentially and the smaller projects simultaneously. So the biggest block of my day is to work on my current BIG project, but the smaller ones get their hour of fame too, I just have to pick and choose which one or two smaller ones get worked on each day, sometimes it’s an ugly fight. Other times I feel overwhelmed and indulge in “avoidance behavior” (playing games) and I hate that. I discovered a timer is a huge help some time ago. I just have a hard time making myself use it consistently. I’m going to look at paying more attention to how I work and see if I can apply a more thoughtful approach to improve my productivity. Thanks for spurring a deep think!

  17. Lizzie says:

    I have tried timetabling, I have tried to be sequential, but I am a procrastinating plate spinner, a starter who takes months to finish stuff because I am doing so much other stuff too! Every so often something clicks and I’ll work solidly on something until it’s done but I am far too spontaneous and unfocussed to do it often :(
    I really would love to find an approach that works around the distractions of life, friends and family….

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