I posted something about how I organize my own work, and I touched on "multi-tasking," and I realized immediately that I had touched something that required a bit more explanation.

I feel like a bit of an outlier to suggest that people spend time learning how to multitask better, particularly when the prevaling conventional wisdom is just "increase focus," "decrease multitasking," reduce "context switches," between different tasks. It's as if there's this mythical word where you can just "focus more" taking advantage of longer blocks of time, with fewer distractions, and suddenly be able to get more done.

This has certainly never been true of my experience.

I was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a bit disorganized as a kid. Couldn't sit still, forgot deadlines, focused inconsistently on things: sometimes I was unstoppable, and sometimes nothing stuck. As an adult, I've learned more about myself and I know how to provide the kind of structure I need to get things done, even for work that I find less intrinsically fascinating. Also I drink a lot more caffeine. I'm also aware that with a slightly different brain or a slightly different set of coping strategies, I would struggle a lot more than I do.

There are a lot of reasons why it can be difficult to focus, but I don't think the why matters much here: thinking pragmatically about how to make the most of the moments we do have, the focus that's available. Working on multiple things just is, and I think to some extent its a skill that we can cultivate or at least approximate. Perhaps some of the things I do would be useful to you:

  • fit your tasks to the attention you have. I often write test code later in the day or during my afternoon slump between 2-3:30, and do more complicated work with my morning coffee between 9:30 and 11:30, and do more writing later in the day. There are different of tasks, and knowing what kinds of work makes sense for which part of the day can be a great help.
  • break tasks apart as small as you can do, even if it's just for yourself. It's easy to get a little thing done, and bigger tasks can be intimidating. If the units of work that you focus on are the right size it's possible to give yourself enough time to do the work that you need to do and intersperse tasks from a few related projects.
  • plan what you do before you do it, and leave yourself notes about your plan. As I write code I often write a little todo list that contains the requirements for a function. This makes it easy to pick something up if you get interrupted. My writing process also involves leaving little outlines of paragraphs that I want to write or narrative elements that I want to pass.
  • leave projects, when possible, at a stopping point. Make it easy for yourself to pick it back up when you're ready. Maybe this means making sure that you finish writing a test or some code, rather than leaving a function half written. When writing prose, I sometimes finish a paragraph and write the first half of the next sentence, to make it easier to pick up.
  • exercise control what and when you do things. There are always interruptions, or incoming mesages and alerts that could require our attention. There are rarely alerts that must cause us to drop what we're currently working on. While there are "drop everything" tasks sometimes, most things are fine to come back to in a little while, and most emails are safe to ignore for a couple of hours. It's fine to quickly add something to a list to come back to later. It's also fine to be disrupted, but having some control over that is often helpful.
  • find non-intrusive ways to feel connected. While it should be possible to do some level of multitasking as you work, there are some kind of interruptions that take a lot of attention. When you're focusing on work, checking your email can be a distraction (say), but it can be hard to totally turn off email while you're working. Rather than switch to look at my email on some cadence throughout the day, I (effectively,) check my phone far more regularly just to make sure that there's nothing critical, and can go much longer between looking at my email. The notifications I see are limited, and may messages never trigger alerts. I feel like I know what's going on, and I don't get stuck replying to email all day. [1]

This is, more or less, what works for me, and I (hope) that there's something generalizable here, even if we do different kinds of work!

[1]Email is kind of terrible, in a lot of ways: there's a lot of it, messages come in at all times, people are bad at drafting good subject lines, a large percentage of email messages are just automated notifications, historically you had to "check it" which took time, and drafting responses can take quite a while, given that the convention is for slightly longer messages. I famously opted out of email, basically for years, and gleefully used all the time I wasn't reading email to get things done. The only way this was viable, was that I've always had a script that checks my mail and sends me a notification (as an IM) with the From and Subject line of most important messages, which gives me enough context to actually respond to things that were important (most things aren't) without needing to actually dedicate time to looking at email.