How Not To Multitask

Computer multitasking is a myth. No processor can do stuff in a true “independent” way. What happens inside that silicon core is that there are a lot of small execution threads which are managed from a central point (in order to prevent them from colliding or accidentally use the same resource). But because everything happens so fast, from the outside, everything looks like magic. So, multitasking is in fact more like a single ball juggler than like a true, parallel and independent execution entity.

Knowing this, you will find much easier to accept the fact that the human brain is not designed to function in a “multitasking” mode. There was a time when I took great pride in doing 4 or 5 things at the same time. “Look, I’m multitasking’. Writing an email while talking to a client on the phone and browsing that contract I had to sign in the next 2 minutes. Yeap, I was really proud of me. Only I didn’t really have something to be proud of.

The Downside Of Multitasking

Squeezing a bunch of stuff in the same tiny timeframe will drastically affect the quality of it. You can bet that the email will have at least a few spelling errors (if not some serious semantic problems) and that the client on the phone will have some difficulties understanding what you’re talking about and, which is worse, that you may sign a very bad contract if you don’t take the time to really assess it.

The pressure of “getting it done” is so high, though, that we keep pushing and pushing, and try to squeeze more and more in that small timeframe.

But maybe the most annoying consequence of human multitasking is that our brain capacity to really focus on one topic at a time is almost completely destroyed. If you keep pushing it, you won’t be able to focus on something more complicated than writing an email. Or a few emails at a same time, to be more precise. The pressure of adding something new to the mix will make it impossible to stay more on the same page, so to speak.

Bottom line: in a few years you will be able to execute only very simple and short tasks. You may be multitasking but your tasks complexity will be at a kindergarten level. Believe me, I’ve been there.

How Not To Multitask

After a few years of being a multitasking manager, I eventually had to find a way to reverse the effects of my own choice. Namely, to regain my ability to perform complex tasks, with a high execution quality and in a reasonable amount of time. And, most important, NOT all at the same time.

Introducing the brain juggler: a few simple rules for doing stuff in a consistent way, without losing your focus and still keep the results within the required time constraints. Or, in other words, how to intelligently switch from one thing to another.

1. Spot The Small Chunks

Isolate the tiniest time unit for your tasks and order them by that, not by the topic or project. In other words, try to group them by how long do you think they’ll take: 2 minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour. And then start doing them from the shortest time interval to the longest.

My long time GTD readers will spot a similarity here: it’s the 2 minutes rule from the Getting Things Done “bible”. Well, it is, to some extent, but it’s more than that. If you force your brain to do tasks of the same length for a certain period, it will warm up. Like a muscle.

So, don’t apply this only to the “2 minutes” tasks, do the same for the “10 minutes” tasks or the “half an hour” tasks. And the trick here is to keep a steady pace of the same length. It’s like cardio for the brain. Or intervals.

2. Balance Right And Left Hemispheres

As a true brain juggler, you don’t want to be ruled by only one of your brain hemispheres. In reality, this is happening most often than not, I have to admit this. Because you may have a specific job that requires exclusively big parts of your left or right hemisphere.

But this doesn’t need to be the rule. Even if you’re an accountant and your job involves your analytic hemisphere heavily, you can still find a way to make use of the other, more creative half. For instance, when you call your clients, try to invent a different salutation each time you get them on the phone.

I won’t say that if you don’t use one of your hemispheres it will shrink and become useless, because I don’t really know that. All I know is that switching them constantly helped me a lot. It’s a little awkward at the beginning but in time you’ll get better at it.

3. Log Constantly

That means you should find the time to log what you did, or at least important parts of it. When I started to work on my iAdd app, I didn’t do any type of logging. Until one day I realized I wrote the same code three times! And that’s because I always rushed to implement the next feature, without taking the time to log what I already did.

Of course, you can’t log every little thing you do. But each big project you start or finish may have some sort of a “login” or “logut” routine, spaces where you should take the time to write down what you actually did.

Logging will create a very necessary loop, a cut in the time / space continuum you’re working in. A separation of the beginning and the end. In multitasking, you don’t have such separations, you kinda live on the same level. No beginning and no ends. And that’s what makes you so confused at the end of the day: did I actually finish what I had to do?

4. Surround Yourself With Intelligent Walls

This is about the fine art of avoiding interruptions. It’s the road from how to say no (and, conversely, to what to say yes) up to what kind of tasks do you really want to take on, all that while building an invisible line of intelligent walls which will stop the flood of your daily tasks.

Yes, most of the time we’re forced to do more in less time because the task hose is bigger and bigger. Well, shrink that valve. Make it smaller. You won’t die if you won’t do any single thing that is thrown at you. On the contrary.

There may be situations when we do have to do whatever it takes to get the job done. But those are exceptional times. They don’t have to be the rule. If they are, then you’re living in a permanent crisis and you really have to talk to somebody about that.

5. Assess And Improve

Do a weekly review, for starters. Try to assess not only the number of projects you finished, but also your overall activity and mood. Were you joyful or stressed? Were you happy about what you did or not very much so?

If logging will create a loop for identifying your beginning and ends, assessing will create the basis of your processes improvement (you will, of course, assess by using the very same logs you produced).

The more you assess, the more you read your own logs, the better you’ll become. You will be able to evaluate the time required by your tasks more accurately, you will be able to juggle left and right hemisphere more often and you will definitely become way better at creating those intelligent walls between you and the harsh world outside. Which exists, of course, only to enslave us in endless tasks and projects. 🙂


When I was a kid and we were going to the circus, I wasn’t impress by the animals. As a matter of fact, I always thought it’s sad to make them do stupid tricks for our amusement. But I was very much impressed with the jugglers.

And if I look at myself 30 years after, very little has changed. I’m still impressed with jugglers, especially if they do the tricks with their brains, and not with their hands. 🙂