Just say no to multi-tasking: reflections on productivity

Tafasta merubhe, lo tafasta.
תפסת מרובה לא תפסת

- Ancient Hebrew proverb from the Talmud (Translation: Try to catch too much, catch nothing.)

I had an unsatisfying couple of days that got me thinking what I was doing wrong.

In retrospect, I realized I was jumping all over the place, trying to keep too many balls in the air. I was investigating the rsync algorithm, while trying to fix a TurnKey build problem, while researching distributed filesystems, etc.

This is problematic for two main reasons:

  1. All that context switching is terribly inefficient. Truth be told I wasn't really focused on any of the things I was doing. Also, jumping from one task to another meant it was easy to lose my sense of purpose and direction. It's very stimulating on one hand, but with so many things in your mind, nothing really settles down and solidifies. It's harder to reflect on each task. Everything is tangled up into incomplete fragments.
  2. It's unsatisfying: even if I could maintain my efficiency, and do all the tasks in parallel, I would get all of my satisfaction rewards together at the end. I think this is one of the reasons that iterative programming is so effective - it keeps morale high by constantly rewarding the programmer with small, yet satisfying accomplishments. Going cold turkey and holding up for a big satisfying accomplishment at the end just isn't as psychologically engaging, especially if you are the kind of person that registers satisfaction briefly and then looks for the next challenge to attack.

So here are my post-reflections resolutions:

  1. Try to stay focused on one thing at a time

  2. Iterate toward big goals, by setting a series of small but meaningful sub-goals/milestones.

  3. Monitor the goals you want to keep (e.g., keep monitoring distractions and time spent)

  4. Work smart, work hard, and have fun!

  5. Attitude matters. You should approach work not as:

    • a burden on your shoulders
    • something to get over with
    • a test of eliteness/personal self-worth
    • an opportunity to fail

    But rather as a fun engaging playground of new things to explore and opportunities to play around and experiment (not make mistakes) in an open tolerant atmosphere.

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