When multi-tasking can pay off

Much has been written recently about how multi-tasking actually isn’t so effective: we spin in circles and get less done. It’s been my observation – and personal experience – that this is generally true. However, I think the multi-tasking in question is when we try to do different tasks for different projects simultaneously. That way, we have to keep switching focus and priorities, so we experience dips in our familiarity with the work and our productivity drops as a result.

But what if we work at the same task on different projects? That just might pay off. At the weekend I spent a lovely few hours gazing at the paintings of JMW Turner in the Clore Wing of Tate Britain. Now Turner was pretty prolific; he was also a fast yet thorough worker. Based on the evidence, I’d say JMW knew a thing or two about getting stuff done, and done well.

Reading the curator’s notes around his paintings, I discovered that Turner would have many canvases on the go at the same time. This was also the case in many artists’ studios. But what Turner specifically did was work on the same element of many different paintings at the same time. So he would paint the ‘ground’ or his base colour, across the canvas, and then do the same to several others, using the same brushes and paint. Then he’d move to the next stage, different colours and different materials, and apply those to different paintings, whether they were landscapes, seascapes or steam trains. In other words, Turner wasn’t multi-tasking as we understand it today: different tasks on different projects; he was doing the same task on multiple projects.

So how might Turner’s approach serve us in this day and age? I think it’s about batching similar tasks together to make the best use of our time and resources. So if you need to make calls, grab your laptop and notes, and go somewhere where you can make several calls one after the other. If you need to catch up with your boss, ensure you’ve updated the other points your manager may want to be updated on, and thus make the best use of both your time. If you’re going to be off-site, check ahead who you may be able to meet or have a conversation with whilst you’re in a different area. If you need some quiet time to write, make the most of it by writing more than one thing: a blog post, a presentation, or reflections in a journal.

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