What people think of as multitasking is a myth. Human beings aren’t good at focusing attention on two things at once. Instead we rapidly shift focus between multiple tasks, which generally leads to doing each task less effectively than if one held all our attention.
Note: This post includes an audio version. If you don’t see the audio above, Click here to listen.
However if we think about multitasking in a different way I think we can become more efficient. I want to look at how we can get several things done by planning what we work on and then offer some thoughts about what I call multipurposing, which is a way to have one thing serve multiple purposes.
Conscious and Unconscious Tasks
First, let’s be clear. We are capable of doing multiple things at the same time. We couldn’t function otherwise. The key is that all, but one of those things needs to be automatic and unconscious. It’s the conscious thought part that requires attention.
We all manage to walk down the street and take part in a conversation, because we don’t have to think about walking. It’s automatic. Trying to follow two conversation on the other hand is something we don’t do well. We might think we’re following both, but we’re only picking up parts of each.
We aren’t good at focusing our attention on more than one thing at a time.
Fill the Natural Gaps in Time
Many tasks have natural break points where we’re waiting on something or someone before we can take a next step. Many times these gaps in time are too small to make use of them. However, when they are large enough we can maximize efficiency by switching our attention and doing something else.
About 10 years ago I worked in a custom picture framing shop assembling frames, mats, glass, etc, into a finished framed print. Building the frames was generally the most time consuming part of the process, but it had natural points where all I could do was wait for glue to dry before continuing.
Since waiting was not the most efficient thing to do, I’d build multiple frames at the same time. I’d grab the big frames that needed to be held in a vice while drying and I’d drill, nail, glue, set, and wait.
While waiting, I’d get the next frame going and then the one after that. If there weren’t more frames to build, I’d work on preparing the mats or cleaning the glass or something else during that waiting period. My attention wasn’t focused non-stop on any one task, but I was being productive every step of the way.
That’s not quite what people consider multitasking, but it is the only way to efficiently get multiple things done at once. All it relies on is advanced planning to maximize how your time is spent.
Think about the things you’re going to do for the day and try to identify points where you’ll be waiting on something or just need a break from it. Find something else you can during that gap in time and have it ready to do.
Multipurposing: One Task Serving Multiple Purposes
I have an alternate take on what multitasking is or what it should be. Instead of trying to do multiple things at once, which isn’t possible, try to do one thing and have it serve multiple purposes.
Many years ago I was reading a book on how to be a freelance writer. The book had lots of good advice, but something that’s stuck with me for years was how the author suggested researching a topic.
Instead of choosing a topic to write about and then researching it, the author suggested you first think about a number of related articles you could also write on the same subject or how you could write about the same subject from a number of different angles.
The rationale is that the research for the related articles would overlap quite a bit and researching them all at once wasn’t going to take significantly longer than researching any single article idea.
- one task (researching a general idea)
- serves multiple articles
If you think about the work you do, you’ll find there are opportunities to multipurpose like this around you more often than you realize.
Much of the time all you need to do is think about something you have to or want to do and then think about how to adapt the task slightly so it can help progress other things you’d also like to get done.
Thoughts for How I Can Multipurpose Better
This blog serves multiple purposes. I post for a variety of reasons.
- To add new content to the site
- To help me learn more about design
- To help you learn more about design
- To provide marketing for my business
- To practice writing and communicating
- To help me think better
When I can I’ve always tried to learn something new on every project I work on. Lately though, I realize I don’t always get to take on projects that help me grow and expand the skills I’m most interested in.
It leads to a 2-step process.
- I spend time learning to work better
- I spend time working better based on what I’ve learned
Wouldn’t it make more sense to combine the two. Why not find a way to make money while learning? Why not put my theory of multipurposing to better use where possible?
There are many projects I’d like to take on for myself. What usually keeps me from working on them is the need to work on things that help pay the bills, while maintaining this blog, marketing my business, and putting in time to learn to do everything better.
Seems like a good opportunity for multipurposing is there for the taking. I could:
- Work on a project for myself with revenue potential
- Learn what I need to learn to complete the project
- Discuss what I’m learning, observing, etc. here on the blog.
It’s so obvious I forget to notice it at times.
I am trying to build toward the above multipurpose taskflow now. In some respects it’s just a matter of being more aware of the things I want to do and seeing where they overlap. In other respects it means freeing up some time so I can put a new workflow in place, while temporarily maintaining the old one.
I’m sure there are some of you who think you’re good at doing multiple things at once. You aren’t. Accept that. It only leads to doing multiple things less effectively than focusing attention on one at a time.
Instead plan better so you can take advantage of natural gaps where you’re waiting on something before you can take the next step in a task. Plan how to efficiently fill the gaps in time.
Even better rethink the concept of multitasking. Think multipurposing. Think about the many different things you want to accomplish and how you can do one task to help you make progress on multiple projects.
I guarantee there are many opportunities for you to do this if you’re willing to think a little differently about what you’d like to accomplish and how you can accomplish them.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.
Awesome post, I love the concept of multi-purposing. 😀
Kill 2 birds with one stone is always one of my favorite sayings.
I have a good friend in Texas, we talk on IM. He told me years ago that people don’t multi-task well, though I haven’t quite mastered not doing it myself. I notice that trying to mix work with entertainment for example yields to pretty much no results for me. So I have to separate blocks of time where I devote myself to something. I can do one task after another, but not 2 or 3 simultaneously.
I remember reading that a lot of jobs wanted people that could multi-task, I believe that’s when I had picked up the habit. But now I will be working on breaking it.
I believe filling multiple purposes with a single task is a powerful workflow, but people still need to be aware of the multi-tasking trap and actively not do it. I certainly think if people feel all the benefits they will gain from a single task, they will try less to do more than what they can in the same time block.
“Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” 😛
Thanks Daquan. I don’t think anyone can literally multi-task. We can all do more than one thing as long as most of them don’t involve cognition. As soon as we need to think and focus we can really only do one thing.
What most people call multi-tasking is really just bouncing back and forth between different tasks. That’s counter productive. I think there are ways you can efficiently bounce back and forth between different tasks, depending on the tasks.
Somewhere along the way I tried this multipurposing thing and found it helped me be more productive so I’m sticking with it.
Multi-tasking sounds like it should help you get more done, but all the studies I’ve seen say it doesn’t. You end up doing each task a little less well because of the diverted attention. I think it makes people feel like they did more, when the truth is they didn’t.