January 08, 2015

Thinking about multitasking with Merlin

One of my favorite podcasters (and people) is Merlin Mann. But I haven’t actually been listening to a lot of his podcasts recently – I have such a backlog, and Back to Work, as enjoyable as it is, tends to rehash many topics it’s covered in the past.

I still subscribe, and I’ll listen if an episode looks interesting, or if I’m just pining for Merlin. Such was the case with Episode 202, which I think should enter the canon of episodes with which you can bring new people into the show. Sure, you get stuff about Legos and parenting (which I dig, but understand that some don’t) but the last half hour about multitasking and distraction and mastery is gold. Gold!

They start getting into it around 49:30, entering with a reference to a recent article about email and its effects. Then they really get going into multitasking. Some brief notes about the discussion:

1. There are different ways of doing multiple things at once. Merlin brings up the analogy of cooking: first you’re browning some ground beef, then you put water on to boil, then you chop and saute onions. It’s possible to do all of these things at once and most people wouldn’t say that it’s multitasking (maybe because you’re doing all these things with a common purpose? or because it’s domestic work?). But that’s because they’re qualitatively different activities – they can be set in motion and then left alone for periods of time. And doubtless you have tasks in your job like this, but…

2. …most of the time you don’t. Writing an email during a meeting is the kind of bad multitasking – there’s nothing that can be left alone for a period of time, you need to be thinking about both things and once. And you just can’t.

3. Not only can you not do that, but people notice that you can’t. In another great analogy he says multitasking is like “French kissing and driving, you might think you’re doing it well until you ask other people” (paraphrase).

4. Dan gets hung up on talking about why we do these things – if we have so much to do how can we possibly get distracted so easily? Merlin observes that little rewards combined with little movements are incredibly addictive: move this gem, fill in this number, write this tweet, like this photo. We’re all like the slot machine junkies. And while it’s certainly easier to be distracted now than ever, it’s always been possible for people to find distraction. (Another great phrase from this part: “You never have to set a reminder to masturbate.”)

5. At some point Merlin brings up flow, and a grid of challenge vs skill – low challenge and high skill means boredom or relaxation, high challenge and low skill means anxiety, etc. It’s a great way to think of what might be motivating (or failing to motivate) you.

Later along these lines he brought up the analogy of a water starting a new job – everything is difficult, even pouring coffee because you can’t take anything for granted. I totally feel this in my new job – new domain, new language, new frameworks, new people. (I even mentioned yesterday the need to push back against comfortable solutions.) Very few things are easy right now, which I think makes it even harder to multitask. But I find the idea very appealing that you can multitask more the more you learn and master your tools and problemset and domain. That it’s possible for you to set things in motion and, like browning the beef, leave them be because you know how things will turn out.

6. In addition to all that, and their charming selves, there’s also a briefer discussion earlier in the show about clutter management that’s great. I couldn’t help but think of my sister when Merlin was talking about Peter Walsh’s book and how much (or little) meaning she could have possibly found in all her stuff, and how much was missing elsewhere in her life.

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