How Not To Multi-Task - Part 1

Questions This Guidance Answers: 
  • How do I give up multi-tasking?
  • How do learn to concentrate?
  • What do I do when I get distracted?

Our guidance on what to do instead of multi-tasking.

We've said often on air that multi-tasking is a lie. We don't mince our words, and we totally mean it. Multi-tasking is impossible for humans. It's not even possible for computers. In the early days they just switched between tasks so quickly that it seemed as if they were multi-tasking. Nowadays they have multiple chips, so it can be argued they are multi-tasking, but you still only have one brain, so the argument doesn't help you.

Yes, you can rub your belly and pat your head at the same time. How much concentration does that take though? If we do it, we can't do anything else, because doing those two things simultaneously takes up our WHOLE brain.

We sometimes show this video at our conferences: Test Your Awareness: Do The Test. In it, you're asked to look out for the number of passes the basketball players make. Something else happens in the video, which if you haven't seen it before, you won't see. Why? BECAUSE YOU CAN'T MULTITASK! If you are counting basketball passes (a relatively simple task) you cannot see the other things that happen.

And, it doesn't matter if you're male or female, old or young, computer savvy or technically barely literate. No-one can multi-task. It's just not in our physiology. (Humans differ by .1% from each other, so we're all a lot more the same that we are different).

Those of you who are thinking, but this isn't me... *I* can multi-task, you're wrong, but apparently not being convinced. Please try and experiment with us. Try these techniques for just a week and see if your output improves. If it doesn't, you can go back to multi-tasking with our blessing.

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Slothful and Lazy

If you exclaimed, “no way!” like I did to Mark’s reference to Adam Smith at 05:28, you can read the full passage in context in The Wealth of Nations, Vol. 1, Book 1, Chapter 1, paragraph 7, available at (Look for the paragraph numbered “I.1.7” in the left margin).

The passage appears near the beginning of this splendid and entirely accessible work, as part of Smith’s introduction to the Division of Labor. This chapter makes the case (if I recall correctly) that specialization in a society – like we see within modern organizations as M&M have pointed out – permits greater productivity than working in isolation in multiple disciplines. In other words, multitasking is dumb: it “renders [one] almost always slothful and lazy.” Yikes!


How to ground distraction


Most of us like distractions, they make working more fun. However they are dreadfull for productivity. And not only men have issues with switching contexts, ladies cannot too.

Here is a technique I developed to ground  distractions to a place where they can't harm your flow; so that you can deal with them later.

Say you're are working on a particular task in a 60-90 min stretch.

If there's something triggers in your mind that is normally requires you to Google, look up on eBay, read in your email, send as IM --  

Write it down in your notebook (with a high quality pen :))

By the end of the day you will find you can tick of most of these "urges" that seemed so immediate. If something still remains on this list, plan it or do when you can. 

I'd advise against using an electronic todo list for this technique. They are usually too close to a browser, Outlook or another source of distraction.