I, like most people, can’t multi-task for shit.

I had a boss who could multi-task to the level where most of us thought he was insane, or had severe ADHD, or both. His work day, as far as I could see, was a furious flutter of phone calls and scribbled notes. Occasionally someone would drop by at his summons and stand there looking like a fool while waiting for the phone to stop ringing.

Very few individuals can actually multi-task*. As it turns out, we don’t really do two things at once – instead, we constantly switch our attention between different things. Rather than doing two things at once, you oscillate between focusing on one, then the other.  Depending on how fast you can do this, you’re diagnosed with either tunnel vision – very slow switching – or ADHD – very, very fast switching – or being ‘okay’ at work.

There’s a problem with this approach. There is context to everything that we do, and switching tasks requires context switching. This, regardless of how good, bad, male, female, black or white you are, hits you. Hard. Context switching comes at a massive cost – a period in which you doodle around trying to acquire the information needed to pull this new task off.

This is literally a waste of time, and that’s where the feeling of “I did so much but got nothing done today” comes from – your time has been sunk into constantly acquiring, shedding and reacquiring context information. Sometime people get around this – my former boss used copious amounts of notes and relied on people to follow up with him on things – but most often, they don’t.

That’s where timeboxing comes in.

No, not the Dr. Who thing. Timeboxing, to quote the great Pedia of the Wiki, allocates a fixed time period, called a  time box (duh), to each planned activity. Several project management approaches use timeboxing. It is also used for individual use to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame.”

I timebox. I wasn’t aware I was doing this until @dulitharw came along and put a name to it.  It works. Ever since I started it, my productivity seems to have ramped up: I’m getting work done, writing slowly, but steadily (both the blog and a novel on the back burner); learning (cryptography and data science); finding time for a movie / series episode; reading one and a half to two hours a day, every day;  I’ve found time for extracurricular stuff – going out with friends and Toastmasters’ and the planning of complete world domination; AND I’m getting a good six hours of sleep a day.  I actually work less – I write far less that I used to – but my work is getting better.

And this is while knowing for fact that I’m nowhere near even close to optimizing my time management – I’m just scratching the surface. I know, for instance, that I’m spending 10x more time on Facebook than I need to. There’s so much more productivity ahead.

This is in contrast to my previous year – 12-hour workdays in front of the computer; stressed-out weekends; little sleep; no social or extracurricular life; no time for anything or anyone else.  It seems natural to timebox. Even better: it allows me to work around what I think of as my “goofball hours” – zones when I have no productivity whatsoever. I work well from 9 AM to 12 PM; productivity plummets at 1 PM and hits rock bottom at 3; by 4 PM I’m up again, until 7; then there’s downtime until 10 PM. Setting timeboxes for my day allows me to neatly work around these zones. Mind you, it’s not perfect, but I put that more on my failing than on the system. For instance, I’ve been unable to ‘box my way into gymming. That will hopefully change in the coming month(s).

In fact, now that I think of it, school was run along the same lines: periods were time boxes. You could clear the maths away and get out the english books, and even though we had too many subjects, it really worked.  You were never expected to do your English homework while jotting down trigonometry notes and chatting to a colleague about isomerism. That doesn’t happen. One thing at a time, dear donkey.

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Where then, does this “multitasking” business come from? I believe that’s something we’ve mistakenly absorbed from the world of computers. Back in the 60’s, computer processors had a feature called multiprogramming; while waiting for the slow-as-fuck printer or hard drive to respond, they could switch to another task and hammer away on that until whatever they were waiting on arrived.

Computers being what they were, this soon evolved to a state where processors would no longer work on tasks sequentially – new things would constantly start and interrupt things that were being worked on, and the computer processor would switch to so many different things so fast that it seemed like it was doing multiple tasks at the same time.  Marketing caught onto this and touted this as “multitasking”.  Corporate types wanting to boast about how much work they were doing caught on to this as well and started spreading the myth downwards.

TL;DR? Forget multitasking. Chances are you timebox as well, but if you don’t –  try it.   I’m no guru, but this one works for me – it’ll work for you as well.

*Science says  the human brain is simply not meant for multi-tasking. This is especially true if you buy into the “women can multitask, men can’t” myth that’s been floating around for years. I looked this up while trying to find solutions for this. Apparently yes, you can  have a phone conversation while watching the All Blacks play. You can drive a car while humming the soundtrack to Requiem For a Dream. You can fold laundry while riding a bicycle. Great. And that’s because for you, only one of these require significant cognitive effort. Driving a car is initially quite difficult: you won’t be humming anything when you’re first sorting out the clutch. But once that’s practically muscle memory, your brain is free to move on to other things. It’s the same with the rugby match – you’ll be paying significantly less attention either to the play or to the person on the end of the phone call. In short, you’re half-assing two or more things, not recommended in a work situation.  This is old knowledge, but for some reason surprisingly large amounts of people  still buy into the myth of multi-tasking.

Additional reading (with slightly more science):