Multi-tasking: if you have ten things you hate doing, try doing them all at once

Males, we are continually being told, can’t multi-task. Rubbish! At the right time, I love multi-tasking. I’ve started writing this now, but will soon switch task to sorting out the junk in my room. Serious amounts of stuff – my normal junk, plus the stuff I cleared out of my office at work, plus stuff from my parents’ house, even my grandparents’. I’ve been looking at it for six months – must get stuck in … put some stuff in recycling and moved some from one shelf to another. This is progress! But I need a change … There’s a couple of things I want to check on the web, and I’d better put the washing on and see if there’s any ironing, and I’ll take some photos of the junk. And then get back to trying to make sense of quantum mechanics…

If I have ten things, most of which I really don’t want to do, then I try and do them in parallel, a little bit of one, then switch to the next , and so on. Perhaps mixed up with some things I enjoy but which are a bit of an effort. That way I’m too flustered to notice how painful it is. If I do enough things at the same time so that I haven’t got any spare attentive capacity, I fail to feel the pain. Even used to work for marking exam scripts.

One of the tasks I’m juggling is trying to make sense of quantum mechanics. This seems to be a story of apparently mutually exclusive possibilities happening simultaneously. This is what I’m aiming at with my multi-tasking.

Dan Ariely, in his book “The upside of irrationality”, offers some advice on interrupting tasks. If you enjoy it, interrupt it, if you don’t keep going. The rationale for this is that we are amazingly good at getting used to whatever situation we find ourselves in, so if you keep going at something you enjoy you will get used to it so it will no longer feel special. Interrupt it, though, and every time you return to it, it feels wonderful. On the other hand, with something you don’t enjoy if you keep on interrupting it, you’ll feel the pain every time you return to it so it’s best to keep going and get used to the pain.

At first sight this is the opposite of my multi-tasking system. But I don’t think so because the pain of doing something I hate doing is not interrupted by switching to another task so I remain acclimatised to doing nasty jobs. With the added advantage that the variety adds a bit of creativity – coming back to a difficult task after a break often brings a new and useful perspective – and with all channels blazing I really haven’t any spare brainpower to remember how much I’m hating most of it.

Really does seem to work.


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