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