Multi-tasking isn't real, and has a real cost | Diversify Your Self Esteem

Diversify Your Self Esteem

Synthesizing ideas from crazy adventures into philosophy, finance, engineering and psychology…

Multi-tasking isn’t real, and has a real cost

Are you a good multi-tasker? Is it required to get everything you want done? I definitely used to think so, doing a lot in parallel made me feel productive, busy. Feeling busy meant I was being valuable. But eventually I reached the final straw…

The straw that broke the camel’s back. 

Every commitment has a cost. Every decision has a cost.

It’s not one large weight you carry that will break you, you’re prepared for that, you evaluate those decisions appropriately. It’s the thousands of tiny commitments, that have no obvious cost, that will grind you down over time.

Waiting for the last straw that will break your back means you will be operating at breaking point all of the time. Burning you out. As a side note it’s vital you take time to refresh yourself to be able to keep going.

Each of these small straws of hay are tasks that require your attention. Splitting your attention has the net effect of detracting from your ability to do any one of the tasks.

The more tasks you switch between the worse you will do at each one. Focus is the key to good output.

Consistent and contextualised focus on a singular task.

The Science

The cost of context switching. A study on the effects of switching focus.

  • They have a set up with 3 groups.
  • Each has two puzzles, a word search and a sudoku they were given to solve. Split into two types of ‘treatment’.
  • Treatment Single is to do the two puzzles consecutively (finishing one and moving on), Treatment Multi is to switch between them every 4 minutes.
  • Group 1 does two Treatment Single rounds in a row – focused. Group 2 does a Single then a Multi – focused then switching.
  • In group 1 they do better the 2nd round, they’re warmed up and practiced, they improve with experience. In group 2 they do far, far worse in the 2nd round.

Interestingly when Group 3 has the choice to switch whenever they like they only do marginally better than Group 2 (forced switching) and still far worse than Group 1 (focused).

Study Conclusion:

  • Staying focused best by far. Only group to improve in second round.
  • …….
  • Choosing when to switch leads to far worse performance.
  • Being disrupted or forced to switch, even worse.

acquiring Problem Context

The longer you stay on-task the larger the benefit to your output. It takes time to acquire ‘context’. If you’ve worked on a tough problem for long enough you know you eventually find yourself “inside the problem”.

“Getting inside the problem” – the idea that after a while working on a system or problem you start to feel an intuition. Like using a hammer or driving, it starts to feel like an extension of your body and mind. This takes mindful focus over a long period of time.

It brings a sense of intuition and clarity you hadn’t achieved before when considering solutions.

Some people will acquire context in a problem faster because they have pattern recognition from seeing similar problems solved before. Often it is about creating a map of the problem.

Often we are looking to be efficient by switching tasks often to get more done. We’ve proven that leads to getting less done, at a worse quality.

Instead let’s find how we can make the single focused task more efficient.

What is a map, really?

It was Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski that remarked that “the map is not the territory” and that “the word is not the thing”. Recognised again by Rene Magritte in the painting “The Treachery of Images”, the picture of the pipe is not the pipe itself – you may remember the reference from “The Fault in our Stars”. And again by Alan Watts‘s “The menu is not the meal. This has been rediscovered time and time again, a natural conclusion.

A picture of a pipe is not actually a pipe. The word “Chair” is not the chair. The map is not the territory itself. These are all the same thing – abstractions.


A map of something is not the thing itself – an interesting rabbit-hole but the point here is that you do not need to know every detail to acquire context to be able to solve problems within a system.

Learning not to fill the gaps

The recognition that the map does not need to be highest possible fidelity to what it is mapping is liberating.

Embrace the gaps.

The map will be more like a spiderweb, where you create threads between concepts, each thread is an interaction of the system. The spider does not create an incredibly dense web to start, it builds out the skeleton. Then will go back through, around and around, creating supporting threads to strengthen the entire structure.

Perhaps you don’t initially know the exact mechanism (the HOW or WHY) but you know the WHAT. You know what will happen when X happens, but not why.

Real life example of the utility of abstraction

Like how you know that if you post a letter in a letterbox with a stamp it will arrive at the destination you wrote on it. You don’t know who picks it up or exactly when, how they get it there but you know that it will arrive. This is abstraction. You know the input (letter), abstract process (delivery logistics) and output (arrival).

So when you need to work with a complex system and you are looking to acquire context do not get held up trying to figure out the identity of the post office delivery driver and every step of the complex logistical network that is the post system. That would not help you get a letter to someone better.

Sometimes you will need to deep-dive, moving through layers of abstraction and knowing when to do this is a key skill of any leader and problem solver. Explored in detail in Principles by Ray Dalio.

Getting stuck in the weeds too early will exhaust you and not get any closer to a solution. 

Ultimately, making yourself more efficient will only take you so far – the individual has a hard ceiling of potential output. Read about the value of learning to accept and ask for help to go farther.

If you avoid ever talking specifics, it will mean you can feel like you’re making progress (and spend heaps of time on whatever it is) but you will never actually have a solution.

You can spin your wheels endlessly.

Death by a 1,000 cuts.

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