Tips for More Effective Multi-Tasking

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.

The One Page Brainstorm

For a few years, rather than really double down on some kind of electronic note taking and task management tool, I've mostly done that kind of work long hand, using pen a paper. I'm not great at using a pen to write, but it can be fun, and I quite enjoy the opportunity to take a step back, slow down, and focus on some brain work. I don't really have a system, as such, though I did read the bullet journal website and I guess I probably stole some of those ideas.

I definitely keep a pad on my desk that's some kind of loose idea of "things I want to get done today or in the next couple of days." Its less a "todo list," in the sense that it's not really an exhaustive list of everything that I need to get done, and I don't use so that I can write things down and then forget them, but more so that when I sit down at my desk, I can more quickly find something useful to do, and that every few days when look over the previous list, I can get a sense of what I've done (or not done.)

I also, and this is perhaps more interesting, have a notebook that's just for brainstorming. I've sort of intentionally selected "half-size" (e.g. 6.5" x 8.25") notebooks for this purpose. My routine is pretty simple: make a point of sitting down with a pen and a blank sheet of paper periodically and just brainstorming or writing about a topic. It's really easy to fill a page and often easy enough to fill the facing page with a bunch of ideas about whatever topic it is, usually something I'm writing but also sometimes code or another kind of project.

I think I developed this practice when writing fiction, which I don't seem to do much of, any more, (though I've been making notes for a couple of years so I suspect it'll happen,) but the idea is less to be systematic about the notes, or to collect them in ways that will be textually useful in the future, but more as a way of focusing and putting all or most of your attention on a problem for a few minutes. Often, though, the notes are useful, both because they force you to answer questions about what you're working on and can function as a creative jumpstart, both when doing work as a thing to review and also because sometimes once you start doing the mental work moving into actual work (typically for me, typing) becomes compelling. I suppose there is almost a meditative quality to the activity.

When thinking about writing fiction, the "write a half sized page full of notes" about an anecdote from a character, or a bit of worldbuilding, or a description of a plot progression (at any scale,) makes a lot of sense and use a useful exercise.

In some ways, I suppose, this is a little bit if a follow up to my Get More Done post, as one of the things I do help begin to make progress or make sure that it's easy to focus and have a clear idea of what to do when you're ready to write more formally.

Get More Done

It's really easy to over think the way that we approach our work and manage our own time and projects. There are no shortage of tools, services, books, and methods to organizing your days and work, and while there are a lot of good ideas out there, it's easy to get stuck fiddling with how you work, at the expense of actuallying getting work done. While I've definitely thought about this a lot over time, for a long time, I've mostly just done things and not really worried much about the things on my to-do list. [1]

I think about the way that I work similarly to the way that I think about the way I work with other people. The way you work alone is different from collaboration, but a lot of the principles of thinking about big goals, and smaller actionable items is pretty transferable.

My suggestions here are centered around the idea that you have a todo list, and that you spend a few moments a day looking at that list, but actually I think the way I think about my work is really orthogonal to any specific tools. For years, most of my personal planning has revolved around making a few lists in a steno pad once or twice a day, [2] though I've been trying to do more digital things recently. I'm not sure I like it. Again, tools don't matter.

[1]Though, to be clear, I've had the pleasure and benefit of working in an organization that lives-and-dies by a bug tracking system, with a great team of folks doing project management. So there are other people who manage sprints, keep an eye on velocity, and make sure that issues don't get stuck.
[2]My general approach is typically to have a "big projects" or "things to think about" list and a "do this next list", with occasional lists about all the things in a specific big project. In retrospect these map reasonable well to SCRUM/Agile concepts, but it also makes sense.

Smaller Tasks are Always Better

It's easy to plan projects from the "top down," and identify the major components and plan your work around those components, and the times that I run in to trouble are always the times when my "actionable pieces" are too big. Smaller pieces help you build momentum, allow to move around to different areas as your attention and focus change, and help you use avalible time effectively (when you want.)

It's easy to find time in-between meetings, or while the pasta water is boiling, to do something small and quick. It's also very easy to avoid starting something big until you have a big block of unfettered time. The combination of these factors makes bigger tasks liabilities, and more likely to take even longer to complete.

Multi-Task Different Kinds of Work

I read a bunch of articles that suggest that the way to be really productive is to figure out ways of focusing and avoiding context switches. I've even watched a lot of coworkers organize their schedules and work around these principles, and it's always been something of a mystery for me. It's true that too much multi-tasking and context switching can lead to a fragmented experience and make some longer/complicated tasks harder to really dig into, but it's possible to manage the costs of context switching, by breaking apart bigger projects into smaller projects and leaving notes for your (future) self as you work.

Even if you don't do a lot of actual multitasking within a given hour or day of time, it's hard to avoid really working on different kinds of projects on the scale of days or weeks, and I've found that having multiple projects in flight at once actually helps me get more done. In general I think of this as the idea that more projects in flight means that you finish things more often, even if the total number of projects completed is the same in the macro context.

Regardless, different stages of a project require different kind of attention and energy and having a few things in flight increases the chance that when you're in the mood to do some research, or editing, or planning, you have a project with that kind of work all queued up. I prefer to be able to switch to different kinds of work depending on my attention and mood. In general my work falls into the following kinds of activities:

  • planning (e.g. splitting up big tasks, outlining, design work,)
  • generative work (e.g. writing, coding, etc.)
  • organizational (email, collaboration coordination, user support, public issue tracking, mentoring, integration, etc.)
  • polishing (editing, writing/running tests, publication prepping,)
  • reviewing (code review, editing, etc.)

Do the Right Things

My general approach is "do lots of things and hope something sticks," which makes the small assumption that all of the things you do are important. It's fine if not everything is the most important, and it's fine to do things a bit out of order, but it's probably a problem if you do lots of things without getting important things done.

So I'm not saying establish a priority for all tasks and execute them in strictly that priority, at all. Part of the problem is just making sure that the things on your list are still relevant, and still make sense. As we do work and time passes, we have to rethink or rechart how we're going to complete a project, and that reevaluation is useful.

Prioritization and task selection is incredibly hard, and it's easy to cast "prioritization" in over simplified terms. I've been thinking about prioritization, for my own work, as being a decision based on the following factors:

  • deadline (when does this have to be done: work on things that have hard deadlines or expected completion times, ordered by expected completion date, to avoid needing to cram at the last moment.)
  • potential impact (do things that will have the greatest impact before lesser impact, this is super subjective, but can help build momentum, and give you a chance to decide if lower-impact items are worth doing.)
  • time availability fit (do the biggest thing you can manage with the time you have at hand, as smaller things are easier to fit in later,)
  • level of understanding (work on the things that you understand the best, and give yourself the opportunity to plan things that you don't understand later. I sometimes think about this as "do easy things first," but that might be too simple.)
  • time outstanding (how long ago was this task created: do older things first to prevent them from becoming stale.)
  • number of things (or people) that depend on this being done (work on things that will unblock other tasks or collaborators before things that don't have any dependencies, to help increase overall throughput.)

Maintain a Pipeline of Work

Productivity, for me, has always been about getting momentum on projects and being able to add more things. For work projects, there's (almost) always a backlog of tasks, and the next thing is ususally pretty obvious, but sometimes this is harder for personal projects. I've noticed a tendency in myself to prefer "getting everything done" on my personal todo list, which I don't think particularly useful. Having a pipleine of backlog of work is great:

  • there's always something next to do, and there isn't a moment when you've finished and have to think about new things.
  • keeping a list of things that you are going to do in the more distant future lets you start thinking about how bigger pieces fit together without needint to starting to work on that.
  • you can add big things to your list(s) and then break them into smaller pieces as you make progress.

As an experiment, think about your todo list, not as a thing that you'd like to finish all of the items, but as list that shouldn't be shorter than a certain amount (say 20 or 30?) items with rate of completion (10 a week?) though you should choose your own numbers, and set goals based on what you see yourself getting done over time.

Work Logging

Joey Hess' blog of his work on git-annex-assitant has been a great inspiration to me. Basically, Joey had a very successful Kickstarter campaign to fund his work on a very cool tool of his that he wants to expand to be a kind of drop-box replacement. As part of the project, he's been blogging nearly every day about the work, his progress, and the problems he's faced.

I really admire this kind of note taking, and think it's really interesting to see how people progress on cool projects. More than that, I think it's a cool way to make yourself accountable to the world, and help ensure things get done.

By the same token, when your project work is writing, increasing daily workload by writing notes/posts rather than actually doing work is a problem, on the other hand, given the right kind of templates, and a good end of day habit, it might be easy and a good habit.

Anyone else interested in this? Thoughts on using rhizome versus some other area of So many choices!

Analog Editing

After doing the first pass of editing on my technical book, "Systems Administration for Cyborgs" on a screen and feeling utterly buried by it, (See: /posts/the-editing-hole,) and I'm considering different approaches for the next book. Specifically, for this novel I have, I'm thinking about getting the novel printed somehow and then editing it "analog style."

I'd love to hear feedback from anyone who has done this, particularly recently. Particularly from people who are very digitally savy. Here's my pro/con list:


  • It might be nice to have a different "editing context," to help me keep focus on the project without the distractions of the internet and current writing projects.
  • Having marked-up pages gives me an actual marker of progress, rather than a list of commits or diffs.
  • It might be nice to get some practice writing longhand again. It's embarrassing when someone hands me a pen and I've basically forgotten how to use it.
  • It gives me a start to a collection of paper ephemera that I can burden some archivist with at some point.


  • Context switching, from a computer, to paper, to a tablet, or whatever is annoying and eats time/focus.
  • Paper would force a more linear editing process, which may get me to focus on the story and characters more closely at the possible expense of seeing "broken sentences," and other things that may be distracting to the next readers/editors/etc.
  • If I edit on paper, I have to go through and apply those changes to the actual text. Which adds a step, and probably a number of additional weeks to the editing process.
  • I'm awful writing things out long hand and I pretty much haven't written anything long hand in 4 or 5 years.


There's also another little thorny problem: I'm not sure what the future of this book is: The prologue stands alone, and I want to try shopping it around. If I can get that published as a short that might be the hook to getting the rest of the book published.

Initially my plan was to have a friend read it as a podcast, and attempt to publish the prologue as a short, and then try and for-real publish the next book. The podcasting idea, while nice, wouldn't work out as originally planned (long story.) Besides, it really depended on having someone else to the reading (I have neither the time, technical skills, nor the real ability to do the reading.) Which leaves me without a plan, and the following thoughts about the publication of this text:

  • I feel like my writing career [1] is in good (enough) shape that my identity as a writer depends on publishing this novel in a particular way.
  • On the other hand, getting the novel (or parts of it published) would be a great thing, and validates all this time/energy/interest that I have in writing science fiction.
  • I'm not opposed to self publishing, except that it means more work for me for what is probably less impact (i.e. readers.)
  • It took me embarrassingly long to write this novel. And knowing how much better my writing has gotten in the last three or four years, means that I'm pretty worried that this is really a cold pile of shit. I recognize that this is probably more reason to get the novel out to first readers, but I also feel like I should do them the favor of at least a little editing.

Printing in the Digital Age

As an aside, this has given me some time to do research on getting things printed, which I'd like to record here and share with you:

(Given a 325-350 page manuscript)

  • I don't own a printer, and have no particular interest in owning one, but a good color laser (in the 300-400 USD) or a good black and white (200-300 USD) becomes much more economical if analog editing becomes a thing.

    The downside of printing things yourself is that you still need some way to bind things. And there are maintenance and supply costs not factored into the above.

  • The price to get printing/binding done at Staples is in the 35-40 range. Chances are that these copies are likely to be the highest quality, quickest turn around, and the web interface--though annoying--is probably the most straight forward.

  • You can use to order prints. The same book costs 15 bucks. It's also spiral bound (which seems preferable to perfect binding for writing.) I'm not sure what "lulu standard" paper is like quality wise, but I suspect it will be ok. If you're ok with a fussy online interface, a weird approach to covers (no really, I'd just like transparent covers,) and turn around time, the price seems unbeatable.

Also, Lulu's cover making interface makes it really hard to get a plain cover that doesn't look like a joke.

I did some hunting around for local copy shops (I swear it seems like I pass several on my walk to work,) but had difficult finding a shop who would be able to do a very small order, and has the digital setup to accept a PDF for printing via email or a web site.

[1]I have a full time job writing and editing. While its not the same as writing fiction, it is rewarding and economically viable, and I'm working on the kinds of projects that I want to work on. Can't argue with that.

The Editing Hole

I'm stuck in an editing hole, and not only am I not editing the things I need to edit, I'm not getting anything done.

I'm at a point where I have about 25 things on my personal task list, and 16 of them are editing related tasks: edit the article in this file, edit this fiction, edit this documentation, edit these would-be-blog posts, and so forth. It seems like I went on something of a six month writing bender, and while I did a little bit of editing during this period, I have clearly fallen behind.

There are a number of factors:

1. I've been making a point of putting editing tasks on the todo list because I want to make sure that I actually finish projects rather than just abandon them. I've not been particularly good with follow through in the past few years, so that's been a big personal improvement project.

The sad part is that my editing queue is probably 10-20 times larger, but I've got some projects on the less-actionable back burner.

  1. I'm not a very good editor.

I'm awful at copy (or otherwise) editing my own work, and while I know that I've become better at this in the past few years. I still know that it's not perfect and so it seems sort of futile, which makes it hard to get inspired to do editing.

3. I find writing to be rewarding, and given the choice I will probably always choose to write new stuff. While this is clearly a learned response to the kind of work, this doesn't make the effect any less real.

  1. I find editing to be really difficult work.

This is probably related to #2, but editing wears me out. I find it difficult to spend long periods of time editing, which makes it difficult to make any really substantial progress on the pile of editing tasks.

As a result, I take a long time to edit things, I'm most effective at editing in short bursts. I often want to break up longer editing tasks with other kinds of work just to keep a clean mind set. After a week or so of this, I have almost everything else done on the list, leaving me with a big pile of editing that looks even bigger for the lack of other things on the list.

So now, I'm trying the following:

1. I'm working on making editing tasks smaller, which will turn into more editing tasks, but it'll be possible to face editing tasks in units less than 10 or 20 pages.

  1. Make more tasks for other projects.

There are two ways to get stuff done: 1) You can be really focused and work on one project at a time until it's finished, or 2) you can be working on a lot of projects in parallel and when you start to loose focus, you switch to another kind of project. The idea is that you end up getting more done because you're being productive more of the time. I subscribe to the second theory.

Here's hoping it works!

Onward and Upward!

Limitiations of GitHub Forks


  1. git is pretty awesome, but it's conceptually complex. As a result using git demands a preexisting familiarity with git itself or some sort of wrapper to minimize the conceptual overhead.
  2. The collaboration methods (i.e. hosting) provided by git, which are simple by design to allow maximum flexibility, do not provide enough structure to be practically useful. As a result providers like GitHub (and BitBucket and gitorious) offer a valuable service that makes it easier--or even possible--for people to use git.


  • there are problems with using centralized repository services controlled by third parties, particularly for open source/free software projects.

    There are ways that GitHub succeeds an fails in this regard. but this dynamic is too complex to fully investigate within the scope of this post.

  • If you use GitHub as designed, and the way that most projects use nGitHub, then you have a very specific and particular view of how Git works.

    While this isn't a bad thing, it's less easy to use git in some more distributed workflows as a result. This isn't GitHub's fault so much as it is an artifact of people not really knowing how git itself works.


  1. GitHub's "fork" model[^fork] disincentives people from working in "topic" branches.

  2. By making it really easy for people to publish their branches, GitHub disincentives the most productive use of the "git rebase" command that leads to clean and clear histories.

  3. There's no distinction between a "soft fork" where you create a fork for the purpose of submitting a patch (i.e. a "pull request") and a "hard fork," where you actually want to break the relationship with the original project.

    This is mostly meaningful in context of the other features that GitHub provides, notably the "Network" chart, and the issue tracker. In a soft-fork that I would intend to merge back in, I'd like the issues to "come with," the repository, or at least connect in some way to the "parent." For hard forks, it might make sense to leave the old issues behind. The same with the network chart, which is incredibly powerful, but it's not great at guessing how your repository relates to the rest of its "social network."

The solution: keep innovating, keep fighting lock-in, and don't let GitHub dictate how you work.

Making Things Easier

I spent a lot of time in the past few months thinking about "automation," as a project to take things that take a long time and require a lot of human intervention into things that just do themselves, and I think this is the wrong approach.

While total automation is an admirable, it's difficult, both because it requires more complex software to deal with edge cases, but also because it's hard to iterate into a fully automated solution.

Let's back up for a moment and talk about automation in general.

Computers are great at automating things. When you figure out how exactly to accomplish something digitally (i.e. polling an information source for an update, transforming data, testing a system or tool,) writing a program to perform this function is a great idea: not only does it reduce the workload on actual people (i.e. you.) I think the difference between people who are "good with computers," and people who are "great with computers," is the ability to spot opportunities for these kinds of automations, and potentially implement them..

To my mind the most important reason to automate tasks is to ensure consistency and to make it more likely that tedious tasks get done.

Having said this, rather than develop complete task automations for common functions, the better solution is probably to approach automation on the bottom up: instead of automating a complete process, automate smaller pieces particularly the most repetitive and invariable parts, and then provide a way for people to trigger the (now simplified) task.

The end result, is a system that's more flexible easier to write, and less prone to failure under weird edge cases. Perhaps this is a manifestation of "worse is better" also.


Onward and Upward!