How to Multitask – When You Have To

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ali Hale of Constructively Productive.

Multitasking. All the rage a couple of years ago; but now it gets a bad rap. (I’ve written my share of posts against it, too.) I’m starting to think there’s a middle ground.

Sure, we can all agree that it’s more effective and ultimately more efficient to do one thing at a time, rather than to fracture our attention between several different tasks. Sure, it’d be nice if we could always sit down and complete Task A before moving smoothly to Task B.

Ever noticed that life sometimes isn’t very convenient?

Yeah, me too.

Like it or not, many of us need to multitask – and, in some cases, this is actually beneficial. So how do you sort the good multitasking from the bad? How do you make sure you’re getting the focused time which you need to get your great work done … whilst keeping the rest of life ticking along too?

Protect Your Core Work

I wanted to say this up front, because I think it’s crucial to effective multitasking. Protect your core work. Carve out serious, concentrated time for your high-energy, meaningful tasks. For me, those are writing-related. If I’m writing a blog post and checking email every five minutes, the post suffers. If I’m writing a chapter of my novel in between sorting out laundry, I can’t get into flow.

Figure out your peak hours, and do whatever you can to protect those and to use them for single-mindedly focusing on one key thing.

Combining Mental and Physical

Multitasking is alive and well!  Everybody thinks it is counterproductive, but if you do it correctly, it is a super-productivity tool.  The trick is to combine a “head” activity with a “body” activity. In other words, a mental with a physical.  The problem is that we tend to try to do two mental tasks at the same time, which is counterproductive.

(Robert Pagliarini, quoted in #27 of 36 Secrets the Productivity Gurus Won’t Tell You (But Our Heretics Will) on Constructively Productive)

I love this tip, because it gets to the heart of when multitasking makes my life better. If I’m doing something purely physical, I often want to keep my brain occupied at the same time. I spent a couple of hours on Sunday folding wedding invites, tying bits of ribbon around them and adding teensy little adhesive flowers. To make this a little less crushingly dull, I listened to some business podcasts that I’d been meaning to get to for ages.

If you’ve got something mundane and physical to get through, find a low-energy mental activity to go with it.

Dual-Purpose Activities

Multitasking doesn’t have to mean doing two things at once. It can be one action which impacts on you in multiple ways.

So, let’s say you go for a twenty minute walk every day before sitting down to work. This means:

  • You’re productively using time when you’re still revving up for the day
  • You’re getting some exercise
  • You’re mulling over the day ahead and planning what really needs to be done

You might play squash with a friend, and get exercise along with social time. You might read a book which is both entertaining and informative. Don’t compromise for the sake of squashing two purposes into one activity (if you can’t concentrate on your work out while listening to a podcast, then do them separately) – but if all else is equal, pick something which has multiple benefits for you.

When You Multitask, Do It Right

My fiancé has exams at the moment, so I’m doing more cooking and housework type tasks than usual. I work from home, and like Thursday Bram, I appreciate the freedom this gives me to sort out chores during the day:

I routinely have a couple of things going at once: I work from home, which means I handle household chores along with my work for clients. When I get up to stretch, I often put in a load of laundry or start some baking ”” fresh chocolate chip cookies are the best part of working at home.

(Thursday Bram, Is Multi-Tasking Really as Evil as It Seems? on Constructively Productive)

However … over the past few months, I’ve realised that there are a few ways to make multitasking less of a pain.

Set a Timer

I am very prone to putting food in the oven or clothes in the washing machine, only to get caught up in answering emails and blog comments.

This is great for my inbox, but less great for edible meals and clean clothing…

What I’ve found works is to set a timer. If I know the washing will be done in an hour’s time, I can set a reminder. Then I can forget about it till that alarm goes off. (I’m using at the moment, because it’s incredibly simple.)

Develop Routines

If I’m going to multitask, I need a routine. If I’m trying out a new recipe for the first time, it’s not a good opportunity to try to tidy my desk simultaneously.

With any task that has multiple steps, especially if you don’t do it on such a regular basis that it’s second nature, it helps to write them down.

Make a checklist of what you need to do when you publish a new blog post, or send an invoice. Jot down the timings for your favourite meals. Keep a list of weekly tasks to keep on top of business administration.

Don’t assume that you’ll just remember everything: if your attention is split between a couple of different tasks, you’re likely to miss a step.

Don’t Get Distracted

Finally, this might seem odd advice in a piece on multitasking, but don’t get distracted.

When you’re focused on one single task, it’s easy to know what you should be doing (even if your concentration does slip). You’re writing that chapter. You’re learning that new song. You’re clearing your emails in order. And you’re probably staying in one physical place.

When you’re switching between two tasks, it’s much easier to get caught up doing something entirely unrelated. Your timer goes off, so you get up from your desk to take the laundry out of the washer, but when you put it in the dryer, you notice that letter you were going to post, so you pop out with the letter, and then you sit down at your computer, but you decide to check Twitter first, and then you click on a link, and … pretty soon, your whole day’s disappeared into a string of unrelated and low-impact tasks.

There are lots of ways for distraction to creep in when you’re multitasking. Resist. Stick to juggling two or three balls, not ten. You’re much less likely to drop them all.

Do you find multi-tasking a necessity, and even a help? What works for you?


  1. says

    Wow, that tip from Robert Pagliarini is great. I really try to back away from multi tasking, and find I’ve become a lot more productive for it. But the distinction he makes is a really useful one.

    For me, opening the door to multi tasking too often fritters away my focus and leaves me in a twitter/email/blog-surfing haze.

    But the tip of combining a mental activity with a physical one really makes sense. The times it all goes wrong for me are when I’m trying to multitask with purely mental tasks.

    I’ll often listen to a podcast while cleaning around the hose, take a mini-recorder, or notebook with me to note down ideas when I take my boys to the playground, but never really thought of these as multitasking.

    Reading your post I’m reminded that a lot of writers–Wordsworth, Wallace Stevens come to mind–used to do most of their writing while going on long walks. So the body/mind mix of multitasking certainly as a record of producing results.

    Maybe the smart way to multitask involves being thoughtful about matching tasks that can actually support each other rather, than picking random tasks you want to mash together and get done in a half-assed way. (Which was how I had come to define multitasking. No wonder it wasn’t working for me :)

    Thanks for the great post!

    • says

      I definitely think that walking and writing are linked (I also know a lot of writers who knit!)

      Picking matching tasks is a great idea; I try to do something similar when I’m choosing between different goals, looking for compatible ones which bolster one another.

  2. says

    I doubt I’d be able to multi-task the way I do without a timer. I occasionally even have notes on what I need to do when the timer goes off! Transitioning can be much tougher when you’re going back and forth, but there are solutions that make the transition easier.

    One of my shortcuts is that I’ve divided my to-do list into tasks that require different levels of focus. I can’t multi-task while I’m writing, although making dinner and sending out emails both require significantly less focus.

    • says

      Yes, I do that with my task list too (I have a section for “admin” tasks which are typically shortish things not requiring much focus) — I’ve actually found that I’m better at doing these when I’m multitasking, because it pushes me to stay efficient rather than get sidetracked into something more brain-worthy!

  3. says

    “I am very prone to putting food in the oven or clothes in the washing machine, only to get caught up in answering emails…”
    As long as you’re not putting clothes in the oven and food in the washing machine, which I’m quite capable of doing when over-multitasking… 😉

  4. Archan Mehta says

    Ah, yes, Ali–right you are, as usual.

    For me, exercising in the outdoors is a must.
    Otherwise, I turn into a zombie.

    Without a work-out, my brain is dead. I turn into a moron. I no longer can add, subtract or balance my check book, because my IQ has gone down the tube.

    I guess we are designed differently, we all are, although we may not care to admit it.

    I tend to get my best ideas when I am using my body too. The sedentary lifestyle does not suit me at all. You could, therefore, say I am a multi-tasker, but a late bloomer and a reluctant joiner.

    I would rather focus only on one thing at a time, but life does not work out that way.
    There are frequent interruptions and too many distractions.

    The flip side is that some of my best creative moments have come to me via the subconscious.

    I am grateful for that, for having the courage to move my body. And it has actually delivered results for lazy bones.

    However, I don’t think the mind-body connection is understood very well by multi-taskers yet.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a long way to go.

    Such research needs to be published and available to the common person.

    We need to take note of such discoveries and re-design our societal institutions and organizations accordingly. Cheers.

    • says

      Yes, good point the mind-body connection. One of my rather perceptive friends (she’s a therapist, which I guess helps!) suggested to me that I’m the kind of person who draws too strong a distinction between the two.

      She’s right, and I’m now trying to be more aware of how my mind and body are inextricably linked, and how, say, being hungry or tired affects my mood and my energy levels for my work.

  5. says

    Thanks for submitting this post.
    This is quite a big topic for me because there are so many things to say about it.

    Firstly, I think this has to do with HOW you work. I think every man and woman has a masculine and feminine tendency and neither is better (nor worse).

    One is geared towards multi-tasking and the other is towards single goals. We all know both ways but we tend to prefer one of the strategies more often. So as a awarenes practices and also a way to open up your options, you simply find out what you prefer and sometimes try the other method.

    But I find that putting limits, setting goals and for example a timer is more of a single goal practice than multi-tasking practice. I say that because I don’t concider one of these ways of working better than the other, just that there are two ways of working, not better or worse.

    I prefer single goals myself and can hardly multitask while I know many who are completely the opposite which is fine.

    Secondly, I think “cross-training” is fabolous. I mean that having several practices or disciplines actually aides your other disciplines. What you disover in for example baking can really open your mind in writing or vice versa.

    So, yes, for example physical exercise like walking is excellent, but as described here, I still see that as a single goal practice BUT with the knowledge that the practices aid another practice. Multi-tasking for me is actually handling several things at a time, not separating tasks.

    I personally don’t think you can finish a bigger project/deadline by constantly multi-tasking but I don’t think you can run a company or take care of a family by just having single goals either. You need both.

    There is multi-purpose and multi-tasking. I don’t mind they get mixed but would like to separate them just for the argument and clearification.


    • says

      Thanks, Samuel! I agree that it’s largely a case of different strokes for different folks; some of us work better by being single mindedly focused on one thing, tohers flit around more.

      I’m not quite clear on the distinction you’re drawing between multi-tasking and doing a bunch of tasks in quick succession. There are few areas where we *literally* do two things at once (e.g. If I’m answering emails in between preparing, cooking and serving dinner, I’d say I’m multi-tasking, but I have to physically move between the two separate tasks).

      I think you’re broadening out the discussion to goals; I agree that in many areas, you’ll have several goals/targets — and that some people (me included) thrive best when pursuing several different goals.

      I agree with you I should have drawn a clearer distinction between multi-purpose and multi-tasking; the example of walking was a multi-purpose task. Walking while talking on the phone would be multi-tasking!

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