Sequential Work in a Multitask World

abstract man juggling plates

We’ve been lying to ourselves for years.

The ability to juggle work is seen as a standard job requirement.

The overabundance of project management and productivity tooling in software organizations would lead you to believe that knowledge workers are particularly good at tracking and completing projects. Unfortunately, a lot of evidence points to us being really bad at seamlessly moving between disparate and unrelated tasks.

It might seem like it isn’t a big deal to jump into back to back meetings or to have a bit of focus time before a weekly standup meeting, but the effect on your work can be quite a bit more substantial than Zoom fatigue.

Context switching kills progress.

It isn’t that we aren’t smart enough to work on projects in multiple domains. It’s that there’s a hidden cost to context switching between those domains. Some researchers estimate that it takes an average of twenty three minutes to refocus after a disruption to work.

I won’t claim that everyone experiences the same levels of distraction that I do, but if I wanted to list a few distractions from the first four hours of my work day today:

  • Product and Engineering All Hands meeting
  • documentation office hours
  • some kid playing drums in a basement across the street
  • sync call for a future project
  • time-sensitive research related to a Slack conversation
  • a bug that was on the live site that needed an immediate fix

Each of these moments of context switching can muddle priorities and we end up in situations where we have a dozen different tasks vying for our attention with no clear path forward.

Interruptions break productive flow states.

Sequential work is proven to be a more productive use of time, so the path forward has to involve working one step at a time. We shouldn’t bounce between tasks and have to be intentional about working in focused time blocks, because working on a single project at a time results in faster delivery.

If you think you have more than one thing at the top of the list, you aren’t actually prioritizing anything. If you’re like me and this has been something you’ve struggled with at work, I’d like to end this post with a checklist that I have been referring to to help me focus and to work more sequentially.

Anti-Multitask List

  1. There can only be one priority (seriously).
  2. Set aside large blocks of your day for deep work on single tasks.
  3. Break down large, complex tasks into smaller, more manageable ones.
  4. Close all the other shit.
  5. Stop believing that you’re special and that you can multitask. You suck at it, too.