Multi-tasking is for robots. And humans.

tl;dr I believe that the best way to achieve as much as possible is to multi-task. But it has to be done properly. And the proper way, from my POV, is having multiple tasks in your backlog and keeping notes on where you are, what is left and what is the current issue. This way you can work on each task until you get blocked (or bored), then write the problem down, and switch to another task while you let your subconcious work on the previous one.

It was some 2-3 years ago. Maybe four. I was reading The Phoenix Project, which is this amazing book about an ordinary IT guy, who ends up being promoted into some CTO-ish role. Struggling to figure his role out, he eventually reaches out to the CEO. Now mind you, this is your typical guy who used to believe that you should have ONE and ONLY ONE goal that you are working towards. The conversation goes something like this: “I observed that there are multiple burning issues that need to be tackled. There’s a problem with Delivery, problem with Head-count, problem with Pipelines, the Deadlines, etc. Which one should I focus on first?”. “All of them”, replies the CEO.

Well crap. That’s a new territory for the IT guy. “What do you mean ‘all of them’? I can’t work on five things in parallel. I need one goal to pursue at the time. And you are supposed to tell me WHICH one should it be.”. “Just imagine”, replied the CEO, “if I went in front of the board and asked them whether I should focus on Sales, Marketing or Product first. They’d kick me out of the room! I want you to focus on ALL OF THOSE PROBLEMS!”.

Obviously I paraphrased, but that’s the gist of it. And I empathized with the IT guy! How the fuck is one supposed to focus on FIVE things? People, and especially developers, are not made to multi-task. We need ONE THING at a time. Multi-tasking is bad. Multi-tasking is for robots. You either do one thing right or you fail at five things at once.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

Before you proceed with this text, I do want to warn you that the list time I published an article on how one of Senior Engineers most critical skills must be the understanding on how to DELIVER stuff, I actually got called all kinds of crazy names on Reddit. I was accused of trying to sell snake oil, being some jerk CEO in disguise, being a charlattan with one year of experience who wants to promote some bullshit blog, etc. It sucked, and it was one of the reasons why I eventually decided to leave /r/ExperiencedDevs subreddit – people go berserk when you mention anything that goes against the common wisdom. If you landed on this blog by accident and have no clue whose behind the text – I’ve been Software Engineer for 15+ years and I fucked up more projects than I can remember, but I also produced some solid bits of code which are powering some really powerful projects now. I also spent some 2-3 years being Engineering Manager, but eventually decided to go back to Individual Contributor track, which is where I am today. Here’s my LinkedIn, for reference.

The whole point is that my whole perspective changed when I switched to EM role. It was a complete and absolute shock because there was this guy, Herr Uwe Rohloff as I like to call him (who is a very good friend of mine now), who literally met me days before having me promoted to EM. So having never worked with me, and never actually seeing me bitch about “ONE GOAL” and “HUMANS DON’T MULTITASK” and whatever other crap my ex-boss had to deal with (sorry, AK and Robert!), he started throwing piles of tasks at me. Now mind you, when I say tasks, I’m talking COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS that needed to be handled with complete different sets of projects and people. He was insane like the freaking insane CEO from that Phoenix Project. And he was German, meaning he had zero empathy as well! Guy was crazy! Or was he?

As you can imagine – what I eventually learned is that he wasn’t. The lack of empathy part is true, but that’s how all Germans and Austrians behave, and I developed a tremendous love for them – business is business and there’s no place for empathy. But outside of work – they’d give you a kidney if you needed one. Anyway, it turns out that, as developers, we get shielded by this idea that we shouldn’t multi-task and that the only way to unleash that creative monster is be focused on one task and one task only. But once you start treading the management waters, you soon realize that game changes real fast. Which is one of the reason many people figure out management is not for them and they go back to IC roles.

But here’s the kicker – you SHOULD multi-task! It’s just that we, usually, misunderstand what Multi-Tasking means. So let me clear that out with couple of images:

The thing is that our perception of problem solving is flawed. We believe that the proper way is to work on a task until you get blocked, and once you do get blocked, put even more focus on it, until you resolve it. That’s wrong. It’s just as wrong as telling a freaked out person to “just calm down”. Hint: it never works.

Let me ask you this – last time you encountered a blocker that you couldn’t solve for hours, maybe days on end, did you eventually resolve it by focusing EVEN MORE on it? Putting MORE HOURS? Maybe you did, but you likely learned that 9 out of 10 times it doesn’t work. What DOES work is MOVING AWAY from it and doing something else. Maybe going for a walk. Or playing some ping-pong. Or, you know – actually working on something else!

The only reasonable way to solve a blocker is to walk away from it and let your unconcious do it’s work. Some people call it “sleeping on it”.

Again, the main problem is our perception of the problem solving. We think that the moment we stop CONCIOUSLY working on a problem, our brain forgets about it. And this is COMPLETE BULLSHIT. It’s actually quite the opposite. There are tons of articles (google them!) that claim that Einstein would take a nap every time he’d get blocked with something, and wake up with a fresh new perspective; and occasionally a solution.

This exact thing is where the Multi-Tasking comes into play! Because you really have TWO options when you get blocked with something – fart around for hours on end, thinking that you are being productive, but what you are really doing is just doing useless shit while your subconcious is working on a problem. Or, you could actually context-switch to completely different task and work on that one until you either resolve it or get blocked with that one as well. And I argue that the latter approach makes WAY more sense! And I also argue that THAT’S THE WAY that multi-tasking should be done!

What you might be thinking is that I’m actually making a case here to sell you a training or some other crap on “how to be effective”. Trust me – I am not. What I’m saying has actually been (battle) tested. By myself. And I assure you that this “framework” works.

I changed job (and role) some 6 months ago. As I mentioned before – I was an IC, for like 12-13 years, then did EM for some time and then I moved to Microsoft and went the IC route again. And this was an absolute shocker in the beginning – I was given ONE task. I kid you not. ONE thing to work on. And I remember being completely and utterly puzzled by it, because, you have to understand that for quite some time I worked on bunch of things in parallell; and I was actually DELIVERING results. Now all of a sudden I get ONE thing to work on? WTF am I supposed to do once I get blocked? Or while I’m waiting for someone’s email reply? Or while waiting for a PR review to go through?

I kept asking for more tasks. Partially because I wanted to showcase myself, and partially because I needed something else to occupy my brain. And in the beginning, just like when switching from IC to EM, it looked like the world is falling apart. You are working on four things in parallel and nothing is getting finished; sometimes for weeks on end. Is the multi-tasking the problem? Would I get more done if I focused on ONE thing only? The answer is – NO. I wouldn’t, because, one way or another I’d have some empty space where I simply either had NO CLUE how to solve a thing and I had to either sleep on it or wait for somebody else’s action (e.g. a reply). So if I didn’t multi-task, I’m quite sure it’d end up taking the same amount of time it did before, but I’d solve ONE instead of FOUR things.

The truth is that multi-tasking is not the problem. Humans are perefectly capable of multi-tasking or else you wouldn’t be able to watch those Instagram reels while taking a dump. The problem is rather HOW to context-switch effectively. And I believe, from personal experience, that the answer is – by taking notes! Here’s the updated image from above (the lower part is updated):

What’s new is the note-taking part! And trust me when I tell you this — taking notes while you’re working on stuff is a LIFE SAVER! What I usually do is literally open up Notepad++, write the date and what I’m trying to solve, and then proceed to work on the thing until I either solve it or get blocked (or bored). And if I do get blocked (or bored) I jot down the things that I’m going to try out later on. Then I go and switch to something else.

The image above is a made-up example but it really is how I’d approach the problem of building a time machine. I’d google it, write it down, and then go to try and figure out WTF that means, then update my notes on whether it worked out or not and what I learned and then repeat that until I get blocked (or bored). And once I do get blocked (or bored) – I context-switch to another task, read my latest notes, and proceed from there. Trust me – it does wonders.

And that’s actually all I had to say about this matter. I really used to believe that multi-tasking sucks, but then I figured out that if done properly it does wonders. All it really boils down is taking notes & moving to another thing when you get blocked (or bored), letting your unconcious work on it. Hell, it seems to have worked for Einstein, so it will, hopefully, for you as well! 🙂

Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Multi-tasking is for robots. And humans.

  1. Some of your principles are explained in more detail and with scientific backing in two books:
    “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.
    “The age-proof brain” by Marc Milstein (this one is not about multi-tasking and focus, but has some parts which explain when a brain works properly)

    That said, what you describe in the article is not how I understand multi-tasking. For me, multi-tasking is listening to a meeting, while you read and reply to e-mails. Or trying to present something while also replying to a question in chat. (maybe these things should simply be called what they are: “interruptions” 😀 )

    What you describe is simply doing your work, but occasionally switching context. And yes, I agree context switching is very critical and should be done correctly:

    1. Context switching should not be triggered by an external factor (i.e. a colleague asking you a question, your boss asking you to do something “right now”, etc.). Otherwise, it’s not context switching, it’s just an interruption.

    2. When switching context, your brain needs to un-load any information used for working on the previous task; otherwise, it won’t be able to work at full capacity on the new task. It’s like freeing up RAM memory, in order to launch a new application. There are two ways to “un-load” this information:
    – forget it. (this is fine, if the details are not longer relevant for completing the first task)
    – store it for later access. (the way you described it: by writing it on something, you are actually storing the info in other parts of the brain which deal with “visual” memory, even if you think you are storing it on paper). Your brain becomes “free” to focus on the new task, because it “knows” that you stored the status of the previous task somewhere, and doesn’t need to keep its RAM memory busy remembering where you left off.

    Anyway, true multi-tasking (i.e. doing 2 or more things simultaneously) is only possible for humans if the tasks are performed using completely different parts of the brain.
    This is why you cannot read 2 books in parallel, but you can listen to an audio-book while you wash dishes. (because the part of the brain responsible for coordinating your hands when you wash dishes is different from the part of the brain used to listen and understand an audio-book).

    Also relevant: Pomodoro Technique (Google it). Arguably, it breaks some of your principles, as well as some of the principles described in “deep focus”, because when you are in a state of flow, and really working on a task, the last thing you want is being interrupted by a timer because you had a self-imposed, “artificial” deadline.

    PS: This is a lengthy topic to be discussed over a bottle of rakija. 😀
    PPS: Directness should not be confused with lack of empathy. Just get a German or Austrian girlfriend, if you don’t understand what I mean. 😀

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