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Multitasking hurts performance and may even damage the brain (2018) (linkedin.com)
491 points by tracyhenry 10 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 293 comments





I have been noticing the impact of excessive multitasking on myself lately, and I am now actively trying to avoid it. At first i thought that multitasking would increase my overall efficiency by filling in gaps of downtime in certain tasks, but it soon turned me into a person incapable of focusing on anything deeply. One day, I noticed that I am unable to read a book the same way i did as a child (cover to cover in one sitting for example), and it kind of shocked me. I now have a rule that i do one thing only, and start other tasks only when the previous task has been finished. This applies to both productive work (learning, programming etc.) and entertainment (YouTube, books etc.). I think that it is starting to help, but I feel like it will take time to undo the damage of years of bad multitasking.

I have noticed it as well, but I haven't gotten to the point of doing anything about it yet.

If I'm playing a video game, I have to be listening to a podcast. If I'm reading a book, I have to check the news every few minutes. If I'm writing code, I have to turn on some sort of background noise. The only times I'm productive are when I, by some accident, get past the initial discomfort of doing only one thing, and get lost in the activity before I have time to think about it.

It's definitely a bad trait, but I didnt cognitively realize that until this thread made me think about it.


I strongly encourage you to do something about it now, not later. It gets harder to fix the longer you let it go.

I struggle with how to handle this at work. I am a data engineer and while writing new scripts to pull data, the testing process sometimes involves waiting 15 mins to an hour (or more) for all the data to pull. Some times I'll start a new task in the middle of the pull or, if I expect it'll only be a few minutes, I'll flip out my phone. But once the data is finished pulling, I'll then need to jump back it and validate it one last time.

I'm curious what others do during this sort of downtime?


You need to shorten the feedback loop to become productive. Maybe you could optimize your environment to operate on smaller data sets during the development? Introduce sampling, local caching etc. Then once you feel confident about the code you run it over the final data-set.

I often find myself stuck staring at screen when some lengthy process occurs. What helps is adding progress indicator, ETA clock, some audible OS notification on finish. Or better take a walk and get a SMS once the process finishes :)


I read in a book, the idea is to break away from a similar kind of task and get back to it after break. If you are still at the computer doing other things while the code is being executed, you are in the same zone different task. But if you use the breaks to do a completely different activity you will be able to come back with a fresh mind and do the task well.

So read a paper book , take a walk, print research papers and read them when you are waiting,

The idea is to treat each of the tasks between waiting as individual task.

Edit: book mind of numbers


I usually try to have a single main task that requires my attention, and fill the gaps with menial tasks that don't require a lot of focus, clean up the code, improve documentation, add examples, spell check the wiki, stuff like that. If I run out of things I'll search for some article or tutorial about something related like a library or a tool I'm using and see if there's anything useful in there that I can apply to my code. If that's still not enough I'll consider starting something else or just browse HN for a while if I just need wait something like 10 or 15 minutes.

Why not automate the last step and send a message on success/failure (or automatically retry based on error type)?


I'm curious, what is your approach to some of the most common distractions in society? Namely TV (youtube?), movies, video games, and social media. Personally I have completely removed TV, social media, and video games. I only watch 1, maybe 2 movies per month. I know that I am much much happier having removed those things from my life, but I still have a hard time focusing. Wondering what other steps I could take.

My current approach is probably dumb, but the main thing I am trying to eliminate is me unconsciously accessing distractions (Reddit, YouTube etc.). I have basically conditioned myself to always go to such sites, and my body just opens them, even when trying to focus on some task, without it being a conscious decision. I have partially solved this by blocking all distractions I usually go to with my DNS (PiHole), so every time I unconsciously try to access such sites I get an error and snap back into reality, so to speak. I do sometimes unblock things, but I make sure that it is a conscious decision.

Try to practice a ritual like writing the names of websites down and then throwing the piece of paper into the trash. I find that it helps to interrupt the mindless opening of the distracting sites. It gives me a brief moment as I'm opening the distraction where I remember that I chose to sacrifice this thing, and I bail out. This requires regular practice of whatever ritual you create.

Write the names on dollar bills and you're fixed.

I have some practical question:

- Is sitting in a meeting, listening and taking notes multi-tasking?

- Is listening to a podcast while jogging multi-tasking?

- Cooking and talking to friends on the phone?


I think multitasking is one of those words that has been used so much it has been reified. Ive never really thought it was a real thing outside of some careful and nonuniversal definition. What is inside or outside the task of jogging differs depending on your goal for jogging. And what is central to your attention is also very fluid. same goes for listening to a podcast.. If your on a running machine, listening to Nerd poker, you probably wont miss any of the best jokes, if your running in a city crossing roads listening to 99pi you might not remember it all afterwards. sometimes I find moving while listening to something increases my recall because of the spatial associations made.

Multitasking is more like beeing in two meeting simultaneously and taking notes on both, writing a functional specification for a project while talking to your spouse about the weekly shopping list, talking with your coworker about a problem in a codebase while you work in _another_ codebase, trying to fix a production server while watching for cars on the road your kids are playing...

Thanks, that is helpful.

I wonder if it can be defined through System 1 and 2 activities. So doing a System 1 task + System 2 task simultaneously would be ok, but not doing System 1 task + another System 1 task.


Yeah the constant context switching is the real culpurit.

I suspect the answer depends in part on how competent you are at the activity.

For example, if I'm learning to jog at a new cadence (180spm) I need to focus on just that. Once that's become my baseline I can listen to a podcast.

Similarly, if I'm at a stage of unconscious competence [1] driving to work, I can speak with a passenger. However, if it's a new section of road I'll need to pay more attention to signage, etc. at the cost of the conversation.

[1]:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence


As for jogging, I think it depends on your goals but I generally wouldn't recommend listening to music or podcasts.

Instead, try to focus on yourself, your sensations, the smoothness/effectivness of your stride, cadence and so on. There is actually plenty to keep your brain busy.

It will help prevent injuries and make you a better runner.


I find the same while driving on motorways. Music is okay, but news / talk radio can sometimes distract me from what is going on and I lose situational awareness. Phone calls are right out.

There are quite a few opinions in the replies to you.

None seem to account for: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Context-dependent_memory

Do what works for you.


Cooking and talking is multitasking if you make an elaborate dish requiring skill and focus. It isn't otherwise.

Listening and jogging isn't, unless you struggle with some serious mobility impediment.

Sitting in a meeting is very rarely a cognitively challenging task as well.


Sure sitting alone is not, but what about listening and taking notes?

You still are focused on one context only. Maybe if you have dyslexia and have to focus on the writing.

I think you can generally do one physical thing on autopilot while still doing one mental task. Doing two mental or physical tasks at the same time is where it gets tricky.

Yes

Have you noticed that your inability to just “read a book” differs by genre? I suffer from that with pretty much any fiction, but can still lose afternoons reading a well-written history or scientific explainer.

Not op, but yes. It is not just difference in genre. The books that appeared to me as awesome when I was younger are completely uninteresting now. I try to read and switch into twitter within three pages.

But, once in a while I run into completely different book and cant stop reading it. Books that I would find boring back then I think. Like you, I read way more well-written history now, but there is also occasional fiction.

I think that the big difference is that once you are well into adulthood, it is much harder to come across book recommendation that suits you. The market is dominated by youth needs I guess.


The market isn't dominated by youth needs. It might seem that way because your selection shrinks over time, but try this model:

Finding good books is a multi-armed bandit problem, and most of us follow intuitively a strategy well suited to that - explore (figure out which levers to pull, or which kinds of writing you care about, by randomly pursuing) and exploit (pick things that you know to be good because you spent time evaluating).

As you age, you're becoming more discerning, because you now know better what's possible, and you know better what suits you. But since the landscape is, for practical purposes, infinite, you also face the hill climbing problem of local maxima. That's why picking new random books in different areas works - it allows you to get "unstuck", and possibly find new maxima.

This also means - sorry - that at some point "well-written history" won't really do it for you any more, either. You'll have explored that landscape enough to become stuck on a local maximum. It will be something like "I really enjoy books about 1600-1800 by these five authors, it's just the best". And then you've read all those, and hopefully something entirely different crosses your path.

Enjoy the ride :)


That sounds like awful lot of work for very little gain.

Which is exactly the difference between market that is dominated by people like you and the one that does not. I don't need to go out of way to explore to find tv series I will like. That market is clearly dominated by people like me.


That is how humans behave instinctively. It isn't work. It just happens. The same will happen to your TV series. At some point, you'll like different stuff.

It also isn't "little gain" - it's the most efficient approach to the multi-armed bandit problem. Other approaches are less efficient.


Or, have we become boring? I've noticed I have outgrown some things I loved as a young adult, like most videogames; though I don't know if it's just me being anti-commercial stuff, trying to avoid becoming a pay-to-win customer, and more of a buy-once customer.

It’s okay to move on. Maybe you not liking videogames is boring to those who still enjoy them? I’ve moved on from most games and it feels like fresh air, in part because I used games as a generally-unhealthy escape (as one might do with alcohol, I now play games in celebration rather than habitually or to escape emotions). It feels healthy to reevaluate how I spend money and time.

> Or, have we become boring?

Why would "not liking the same books as before" imply "we became boring"?


What lead you to believe excessive multitasking is the cause? Could it be related to other lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, medications, even perhaps aging?

Highly recommend "The Shallows". (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9778945-the-shallows) It's a book about our brains becoming shallow, incapable of deep processes like reading a book.

This describes having children pretty well. You’re always just jumping in to rescue them from themselves all day long. There’s no time to have a single coherent thought or even spit out a sentence- it’s just single words. “Off! Fingers fingers! Shoes! Out!”

My primary school age son, and anecdotally, lots of other kids of similar age, relentlessly multitask in ways that hurts my brain just to think about.

He literally is playing a game, watching a YouTube video in another screen, and talking to friends at the same time, and in the most extreme case, is even listening to an audiobook or podcast as well.

Asking kids about it, they all say that's just what they do and look at us oldies like we are from the 20th century or something.


I am late 30s and do that. I think it is a learned dysfunction / habit / stimulatory addiction.

Just last night my wife asked how I can play a game (Path of Exile) and watch YouTube on my other screen. It was a little hard to explain but I mentioned I tend to watch videos I don't really need to look at (in this case it was just the relaxing tones of LockPickingLawyer) and I was kind of playing in a flow state in PoE so it didn't need my full attention.

What is really concerning is when I am watching something I actually want to pay full attention to on YouTube/Netflix, and I find myself opening a fresh tab to load up a second video before catching myself and realising it's ridiculous listening to two videos at once talking over each other. Putting the speed up to 1.75x or so helps with this if it suits the topic. In fact that was one habit I built during COVID, and going from YouTube videos at 1.75x to voice meetings with slow-talkers back in the office I found myself reaching for a speed button that didn't exist.


> stimulatory addiction

This really seems to be it, for me. There's a "high" that comes with being productive. Multitasking lets you trick your brain into thinking its being productive, giving you the high without actually doing the work.

> What is really concerning is when I am watching something I actually want to pay full attention to on YouTube/Netflix, and I find myself opening a fresh tab to load up a second video before catching myself and realising it's ridiculous listening to two videos at once talking over each other.

This is so relatable. A lot of times I open up a window to get started on a project, and within 5 minutes I've absentmindedly opened youtube/reddit/discord/hn/wikipedia and started my way into a wormhole that will take at least an hour to get out of.


> flow state

This terminology means you are completely focused on the task you're doing, forgetting other distractions. I don't think it applies here.


This. Multitasking certainly prevents you from getting there.

I was kind of playing in a flow state in PoE so it didn't need my full attention.

That's not a flow state. That's autopilot.


Yeah, this is correct. I don't think flow applies if attention is divided.

Very cool that you accepted the feedback. Not easy to do, so take a moment to honor yourself for that.

I agree, but wow it's a sad indication of where we are that this is notable.

That speed button is forcing async communication and having the ideas written out, or if they really insist, a presentation (with a transcription or at least the slide notes).

Many of the offending meetings start with "let's jump on a call to nut it out" so unfortunately it's always a waffle in those cases without much useful prep work, but it's hard to say no because sometimes it really is the best course. I think we have a few people with a deficit of human interaction over the last year, doing their best to make up for lost time.

>Putting the speed up to 1.75x or so helps with this if it suits the topic. In fact that was one habit I built during COVID, and going from YouTube videos at 1.75x to voice meetings with slow-talkers back in the office I found myself reaching for a speed button that didn't exist.

I literally listen to nearly all the content I watch on 3x speed, faster if it's not difficult to understand. I have literally found myself reaching for a nonexistent speedup button on a nearly daily basis it's very maladapted.


If this behaviour is problematic for you, it might not be a bad idea to get yourself tested for ADHD.

Even more so for @andrewstuart his son. I can only imagine what I could have achieved with early diagnosis and treatment.


Yeah, I've considered it but the last year meant I pretty much avoided leaving the house. Maybe it's time to look at it again. My sister and mum (in her 60s) got diagnosed recently.

Realistically, this is having friends over while playing a game and tv/music on in the background. It really isn't all that out of the ordinary, and something we've done for quite some time. Heck, we did a version of this while getting very, very stoned and playing a PS1. None of it requires a lot of attention: You can rewatch/relisten to folks on youtube. Games don't need a lot of sounds, and if you die, you can restart. Friends will repeat if asked.

Or knitting in front of the tv while chatting as another example.

Could be generational, and it reminds me of when CNN added the scrolling news ticker to the bottom of all programs.

It drove my grandpa nuts, and he literally taped paper over the bottom of his television screen so he could watch Larry King in peace.

Now you watch some Minecraft PvP influencer’s YouTube channel and they can’t make a statement without running around playing the game while they do it.


Holy shit, CNN and Fox News. Nothing gets my anxiety up like those fucking 24 hour news channels. The one that really gets my goat is Fox, because 100% of the time there's a big red box on the screen that says ALERT. There's always a fucking alert, even when nothing is happening. It's like you turn it on and suddenly the entire world is on fire. All this spinning shit all over the screen and graphics flying around, people screaming at each other, 62 tickers on the screen showing you totally irrelevant information. No wonder people who watch these channels are so fucking anxious.

I'm convinced that growing up constantly flipping channels on cable TV gave my generation ADD/ADHD. I went to college in 1987. You could tell the kids who didn't grow with cable. They couldn't multi-task. But they could focus on one thing much better than the cable kids.

I wonder if brain structures of children are getting wired differently to better accommodate for multitasking in the modern Information Age. I would imagine that if you multitask all day, your brain would adapt to do this context switching more effortlessly, probably at the cost of something else that the brain judges as less important. Not saying that that's a bad thing, I'm just curious.

I doubt it. We have known for a while that the brain is not multithreaded. The kids that can focus - they are the ones that will lead, build, and succeed. It's amazing what you can achieve in a short period of time with a quieted down brain.

While I agree with the part about the brain not being multithreaded, I cannot agree with the rest. Leading, building and succeeding doesn't seem like something that is predicated on the ability to focus.

It strikes me as a sensory immersion overload. The rise in ADD and other attention related issues seems to be related. Never in history have human animals been exposed to such levels of stimuli at such a young age.

I'm not sure the stimuli of open nature, danger, the elements isn't higher. One element that seems striking is how predictable and repetitive the modern stimuli are. If you can autopilot through a game, it must be quite constrained and your estimation/prediction abilities must be highly trained (or consistently doing 'good enough'). Movies, cartoons are all animated images that reward a good predictor, from image to image, from word to word. Open nature seems more chaotic, less... repetitive and predictable. I'm just saying, different kind of sensory stimulation...

That's a pretty wide amount of tasks, and more than that it's a lot of sensory input. It makes me wonder if they are actually processing any of it or just letting it sort of wash over them.

Like at the end of it could they give you a detailed report about what happened with any one of those things? Even just asking for the gist of things, I imagine at least one of those things is being tuned out entirely.

For instance, I often game and talk with friends at the same time. That's pretty normal I think, especially if we're playing the same game together. I could easily have a podcast on and a youtube video playing, and from my girlfriend's perspective I'd look like I was trying to do it all at once. But realistically there's no way I'd be able to give the podcast or the YouTube any attention. They'd just be on.


This sounds more like entertainment or leisure time, so I don't know how important "processing any of it" really is. Giving a detailed report about what happened certainly doesn't seem to be a goal, and I don't see why it ought to be. If you're trying to relax or be entertained, and you are succeeding, that seems fine to me.

Sure, but that has nothing to do with why I wrote my comment. It's fine for people to spend their leisure time however they want. If you want to focus on a single thing like reading a book, or sit in a room in quiet contemplation, or turn on every electronic in your house, I don't care.

I'm just curious if the latter is really the same as multi-tasking. It's reasonable to question if having a lot of sensory input thrown at you that you are mostly ignoring is the same thing as multi-tasking.


I would say it's not. To me, multi-tasking implies you're completing a task, you have a set goal in mind with a series of steps or focused work required to achieve the goal or end result of the task.

For me, there is a difference between the experience of sitting in a dark room and watching a movie and not doing anything else as opposed to watching a movie at home whilst reading things on the phone or looking up stuff in IMDB or pausing and making hot chocolate, etc. So even for entertainment, the experience and effects of more focused activities and less focused activities probably still merit investigation.

I have a friend who surfs the web and watches YouTube and TV shows in the background. I don't get how people can do that... I miss the whole show AND I don't take in anything I'm reading. It's a 100% wasted experience for me. I am pretty jealous that people can do that, but I wonder if they are getting anything out of it either.

Similar situation, second grade son. I like to think that when not going outside a bunch, where the sensory bandwidth is immense, they have an easy time replacing it with streams of digital input like that. Sure they are able to do all these things simultaneously that seem impressive, but we would be able to instantly gauge how far a dozen points of interest are, notice tracks on the ground, unusual plants, hidden animals, hear animal calls, etc.

I've noticed the exact same thing. My son will constantly be doing multiple things at once -- watch a youtube video while playing a game, etc.

Although when I was a kid a literally did everything with the TV on in the background.


And I did college physics homework with the tape deck running. (I'd turn it off when I really needed to focus, though...)

I would turn the stereo on so I could focus for homework. Always needed something in the background. I'm 47.

20 years ago I had no problem having three to five conversations running in private chats mediating between guild members, keeping notes about them so I could remember for next session and still grinding XP in demanding highlevel areas of an MMORPG.

Now? All quiet and maybe I can concentrate enough to finish one task at a time.

When I visit people with TV on in the background I have a very hard time to talk to anyone.


Sure, but these are all just fun things, none of which really require any focus. My kid does this too, but when it is time to do homework even having music on has an immediately obvious negative effect.

What about school itself? Why is it that you go for 45 minutes of English, then math, then French, then art, and PE?

Strikes me as the worst context switching waste imaginable.


My middle school had 48 minute blocks like this. 7 per day, if my memory serves, with 3 minutes between periods to change classes and I don't remember exactly how lunch worked.

My high school had four 90-minute blocks. 7 minutes between. 3rd period was actually 2 hours, and you'd have one of four half-hour lunches (so, sometimes 90-30 and sometimes 60-30-30, and each of those reversed).

I hated the middle school setup, in which settling down took the first 15 minutes and the last 10 were spent packing up (since the time between was so short, you had to be packed when the bell rang). High school was so much better... but my brother hated it, because focusing on the same topic for 90 minutes straight with no breaks was difficult. (And it made scheduling difficult, but that's tangential here).

So I think the moral of the story is that there's no silver bullet, and breaks are important, even if you don't change topics.


Doing all those things at once is one thing. My question is: how well they understand (and enjoy) the audiobook, how much they remember from the podcast/youtube video, or think before sending a message to their friends? or how is their performance on the game while doing that vs if they are focusing?

My wife multitasks like this all the time (tv + phone), but then she has to ask me something about what's on the TV because she missed it or didn't understand well


That is possible because your son doesn't HAVE to do any of those things. He wants to do them. There's no external pressure - deadlines, impressions. There's no reluctance. There's no examination of how well he listened to any of it.

It would be interesting to see how much of all that information is actually retained. I bet kids are much better at filtering out background noise than grown-ups are.

Why be in a single state of flow when you can dip into and cycle through multiple flow states simultaneously. Only saying this semi-sarcastically. There is a kind of janky skill of knowing how to allocate attention while 'multiconsuming', but I'd be wary of doing it for anything that matters/multitasking simply because you start wading into the risk of unknown-unknowns territory, when you ignore crucial potentially info

I think this is similar to sitting in a coffee shop doing work with a coworker. The game is the work you're primarily focused on. Your coworker is there but only occasionally engaging between thoughts. The Video is the background activity of the coffee shop, it's there but you're not that focused on it unless something unusual occurs.

I bet they're not taking a lot of it in. Youth might convey certain enhanced abilities to switch between tasks efficiently denied to older people, but I'm willing to bet that even at the simple level of "computer game while on a call" sacrifices some of the attention of one of those things.

Related, my kids make grumpy faces when I tell them to turn off "background" Netflix or YouTube while they're doing their homework.

Semi related, my wife's friend came over and it was suggested we watch a film. "Aliens" was chosen as the friend and my wife hadn't seen it before. I put it on, they started chatting. When they started chatting I paused the film. They stopped chatting and asked what was up. I said that you started chatting so I figured you weren't watching the film, and I was actually trying to watch it. They promised to stop chatting. I played the film, they started chatting again after a short pause. We went through the pause/explain/promise cycle again and I played the film. They both promptly fell asleep.


> Related, my kids make grumpy faces when I tell them to turn off "background" Netflix or YouTube while they're doing their homework.

Are you aware of the reason why you are doing this? Have you examined your reasoning as thoroughly as the faces of your children seem to tell you? Do parts of your body feel numb?


> Are you aware of the reason why you are doing this? Have you examined your reasoning as thoroughly as the faces of your children seem to tell you?

What? It's simple isn't it? Multitasking doesn't work, all having these things on in the background will do is distract from the homework they need to do. This is literally a comment on an article about how multitasking doesn't work.

> Do parts of your body feel numb?

What the hell sort of question is this?


No, it isn't simple at all.

You described yourself as extremely self-centered and you didn't seem to notice that you did so. I'm wondering if you are one of those people who seem to only ever use the left side of their brain. You can function in the role of a father in this mode but don't expect your kids to take care of you when you're old if you never respect their opinions and desires. I'm reaching out to you because what you wrote seem tragic to me.

Applying human sensibilities to the result of an evolutionary process is not going to capture all its intricacies because evolution re-uses systems with no regard to taxonomy. Because of this you are for example unable to tell the difference between anxiety and gas trapped in your stomach, or tension in your neck and stress from work. There is no duality which lets us separate mind and body, and apparently people can get so out of tune with their own body, mind and emotions that physical numbness results.


Calm down, I tell them not to watch Netflix or YouTube while they're concentrating on their homework because it will affect their ability to concentrate. It's not some sort of police state. They lead happy fulfilled lives in general, and being told to not do those things isn't making a material difference to that.

Respecting people's opinions or desires doesn't mean letting them do anything they want, and not letting them do one fucking thing doesn't mean that "you never respect their opinions and desires". They're kids, they need structure, guidance and protection. You can let your kids do whatever the fuck they want wether it's good for them or not, let me know how that works out.

Your weird obsession with this, and your writing make you sound like a complete fucking weirdo.


You're a good father and what you wrote I agree, I don't know why some people downvoted you. Mutlitasking kills. What's wrong with a man telling his kids to not do multiple things at once and focus on the more important matters first?

Cursing and telling others to calm down...

Wow, you judged the whole character of a person by a single incident in their life. Great.

You meanwhile enjoy drama so much you feel you need to participate in a discussion that doesn't conern you even if you possess nothing with which to contribute. How close was I?

I know this is supposed to make them come off as distracted, but it seems like they just weren't so into the movie but you just come off as a bit of a knob.

It was made as a comment on another comment about "media being put on as background", an activity which I believe my wife's friend buys into. If that wasn't clear then perhaps you could have enquired rather than being so fucking rude.

I'm in my 20s and actually I do the same thing your son does pretty regularly. If it's a game I need to pay attention to then I wouldn't be watching a video though.

I’ve seen my youngest sibling do this and I agree it breaks my brain. Can’t imagine you get anything done like that.

Its hard to picture your son doing his homework in the same way.

Yet multitasking is still being branded as something of a higher cognitive functioning. Byung-Chul Han in The Burnout Society claims that it is the opposite:

> “The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking’ does not represent civilisational progress. Human beings in the late-modern society of work and information are not the only ones capable of multitasking. Rather, such an aptitude amounts to regression. Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.

> An animal busy with eating must also attend to other tasks. For example, it must hold rivals away from its prey. It must constantly be on the lookout, lest it be eaten while eating. At the same time, it must guard its young and keep an eye on its sexual partner. In the wild, the animal is forced to divide its attention between various activities. That is why animals are incapable of contemplative immersion—either they are eating or they are copulating.”

> ...

> We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.”


>multitasking is still being branded as something of a higher cognitive functioning.

not surprisingly given that it is branded that way by the "multitaskers". I mean you wouldn't find many deep contemplative thinkers at the mid- or top-level of corporations or even of the whole society. These days the ability to deep contemplative thinking is more like a handicap relegating you into the rank-and-file.


I disagree. Multitasking is starting to be seen as what it actually is. If you're managing well, you'll at the very least be familiar with the doubt around humans being capable of multitasking effectively.

There are people who have had a cognitive impairment they've worked with and they're are people who haven't.

If you have a brain injury, head trauma, stroke, cognitive migraine.... You're aware of the space you vacate. You can feel it missing and its "a thing".

For everyone else, you just convince yourself you're just as effective as you were. You think multitasking works or driving after two beers is ok. You're not aware of what is outside of your constrained cognition.


Been all of these.

Used to multi task like crazy when younger. Turned out it was a coping mechanism for severe ADHD.

Then had a few years of brain injuries.

I would see a problem. Say “reverse a string”, and think oh that’s trivial. A week later I would finally finish. I “knew” how to solve the problem, but as you described something was missing.

Eventually recovered, plus got on adhd medication. Now I don’t multitask much. Only if I skip medication.

I still can but it’s harder unless I’m off medication.

In general I’m much more productive. But grander problems are a little harder as I’m not thinking too much beyond the moment.


Have there been any long term studies on ADHD medication ?

Again and again, people just refuse to accept that cognitive performance has very clear limits, and that multitasking, skipped breaks and long hours are, at best, a total waste of time. And exponentially so, the more “focus-intensive” the work is.

Why do we have this bias? Is it deeply wired in some sort of survival instinct?


I think what you say is true over the long term, but not so much over the short term. Need me to skip breaks and work hours for one day when I'm well rested. I definitely can be significantly more productive than usual. Problem is that it's not sustainable.

It took me over 15 years in the industry to realize a couple of things. If you're young and reading this then I hope you at least spend a few minutes thinking deeply about it.

1) Any productivity gained over that one-or-two-day session makes very little difference in the big picture. Even a week.

A company/product/feature is never going to live or die on that 30 hours of coding that you managed to squeeze into 48 hours. 99.999% of the time you're doing it to calm people's nerves or make someone (yourself? PM? EM?) look good.

2) My reasons for doing these marathon sessions was a lie.

I told myself that I'm doing it because I love the product, love the work, love this, love that. I'm an artisan, I told myself. A professional. Work is my life. Isn't it the same for those Japanese knife maker guys? I'm like those guys. I live this work.

The real reason was fear. Fear of not being the best, fear of not being successful, etc. I felt like I didn't have a place among MIT/Stanford grads. So I compensated with brute force.

--

It didn't help that I was rewarded with more money, more respect, and more decision making power. I was even rewarded with more knowledge than everyone else -- you learn a lot working 12 hours a day. And if you screw something up you have plenty of time to fix it.

Wrote a nasty bug? No problem, ship a fix at 11:30pm and the impact is minimal. People are much less likely to criticize you if you're the person sitting up at 11:30pm shipping to production. Clearly your heart is in the right place, right?

The "trick", I found, was to work for people who NEVER EVER demanded more than 7 hours a day from me BUT also appreciated that I'd go well above and beyond expectations. Now that I think about it, it reminds of drug dealing (or the little I know about it from when I was a teen).

I feel fortunate that I was able to disassociate my fear of failure from my genuine love for the work. These days I'm able to be very productive and lead a relatively healthy life but it took waaaay too long for me to figure out how.


This. So much this.

At my company, we give out "values awards". People are frequently lauded for working late evenings and weekends. Everytime this happens, I cringe. If people feel they need to do this, it's a sign that projects were under-resourced or the deadlines were too tight.

At this point in my career, I am so much more comfortable saying "no" to upper management.

"My team does not have capacity for this" "ok, which piece of work do you want us to drop?" "Yep, we can do that... next year"


> At this point in my career, I am so much more comfortable saying "no" to upper management.

Me too. But I also don't care about career progression or money anymore. 10 years ago that wasn't the case.


I will preface this by saying I agree with you.

However, I'd like to point out (as someone else did too about downplaying the upside) -- if you did get rewarded with money, respect, promotions (decision making power), knowledge -- these are all real material gains from those long hours. True, from the business point of view, your extra hours didn't matter to the business in the long run. It did matter for your career though. In fact, if you happened to work for a growing unicorn, and you gained those rewards and promotions with those long hours, you may even have made lifechanging money from unicorn equity, from those long hours.

Which, comes back to the point, this is unhealthy and somewhat toxic (the fact that putting in long hours gain you those things, i.e. it encourages people to do so).


I learned a lot and shipped a lot in the few "long hours" coding sessions I did in my life. Those returns then compound over the rest of your career. Just because parent post went overboard doesn't mean it's a bad idea for people to challenge themselves once in a while.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the occasional late night session. Or even pulling an all nighter every once in a while. If I had a chance to redo my choices then I'd keep a lot of those sessions. Nothing compares to the feeling of zen I felt in those moments.

What I'm cautioning against is a consistent strategy of brute force work in order to compensate for other things (fear of failure in my case). It's like the difference between socially drinking and being an alcoholic.

Long way of saying I agree with you.


Absolutely. I wouldn’t dismiss a couple of day’s sprint. I’ve done those myself and accomplished a lot. Short-term “stress” and alertness have been evolved to be a very useful feature.

You just have to realize, like a good night out drinking, that you’re trading it for something in the other end.


> In fact, if you happened to work for a growing unicorn, and you gained those rewards and promotions with those long hours, you may even have made lifechanging money from unicorn equity, from those long hours.

That's what happened to me. Unicorn -> long hours -> pay day.

> Which, comes back to the point, this is unhealthy and somewhat toxic

This is the unfortunate conclusion that I've come to as well.

High risk, high reward. There are people who work just as hard and for just as long, but don't get to enjoy the spoils. When I think of how close I came to not making it -- eek.


> A company/product/feature is never going to live or die on that 30 hours of coding that you managed to squeeze into 48 hours.

Sort of.

Several 'death marches' over my career were in fact necessary for business reasons. Large penalties can exist in contracts when deadlines are not met. No one is going to reschedule CES, the Christmas shopping season, or the Superbowl for you because you were running behind. In some cases, missing a deadline throws off the schedule of hundreds or thousands of people in your organization who depend on your work. It's true that many times it doesn't matter, but many times it does absolutely matter. I'd like to think I got to where I am in my career because I'm willing to put in the effort to make those sorts of deadlines.

> My reasons for doing these marathon sessions was a lie.

My reason for doing it is because it's the job. I came into engineering with the expectation that it is an important job that often demands much of you but also affords you with a great deal of flexibility and self-determination. I get to take off time whenever I want and WFH whenever I want because I accept that there will be times when I absolutely cannot do whatever I want.

It depends on the specifics of your job as well. Some indie game dev can probably just delay their release a few days. Embedded devs are often on a schedule dictated by hardware schedules, production schedules, factory availability, shipping time, etc. etc. Just because the job is software doesn't mean it has to resemble any other software job.


> Large penalties can exist in contracts when deadlines are not met.

If you are cutting it so close that an extra few hours are the difference between delivering or not, _ the project has been a failure for quite a while _

Some things cannot be easily foreseen and you have to fight some fires. That's fine. But let's not normalize lack of planning.


I don't work in coding but as sysadmin. And the same stuff applies.

Projects with multimillion dollar outcomes are somehow managed by people who don't stoop to ask your team anything in the planning phase.

Instead they come in the implementation phase and want you to jump. Then you point out the resources required - in writing - and the fires are burning...

At that point, I may help or may not depending on whether they pay good overtime and it suits me.


> Several 'death marches' over my career were in fact necessary for business reasons. Large penalties can exist in contracts when deadlines are not met.

This is why management should be setting internal deadlines LONG before the actual deadlines. If they fail to do this, it's their fault, not yours (as the engineer).

If you play up to their illusions of success by telling them "it'll be fine, we can do it" (I've done this -- a lot) then of course they'll go along because you'll be the one to blame when the deadline isn't met.

Setting yourself up as the one to blame for promises outside of your control is a very, very bad thing to do.

> No one is going to reschedule CES, the Christmas shopping season, or the Superbowl for you because you were running behind.

This is WRONG. Of course they reschedule things for CES. If a product isn't ready in time for some event, the company WILL find a way to deal with it.

This is what took me a very long time to learn.

Nobody cares about CES. Not in the big scheme of things.

> I get to take off time whenever I want and WFH whenever I want because I accept that there will be times when I absolutely cannot do whatever I want.

Taking a couple weeks off is nothing. Tell me a story about how you take off a couple weeks every 3 months -- you don't. Because, in order to meet the "demand" you speak of, you're not actually going to use those times off.

There are something like 104 weekend days in the year. Now combine that with non-work hours there are in a year. Now add a standard amount of vacation days per year in tech companies (like 4-6 weeks?). That's how much time you're giving up by working nights and weekends.

> Embedded devs are often on a schedule dictated by hardware schedules, production schedules, factory availability, shipping time, etc. etc. Just because the job is software doesn't mean it has to resemble any other software job.

But it isn't the responsibility of the hardware developer to ensure timelines are appropriately padded.

The reality is, and this is especially true in hardware, non-software related delays happen all the time. It needs to be accounted for either way.


I would like to voice my counter anecdote! I’m still relatively young and have no dependents , and I relish the times I’ve been at the office debugging something until the lights switch off. Then around midnight I finally succeed in my pursuit and return home, in a state of surreal and peaceful contentment as I walk the quiet city streets. I really just love the feeling of being consumed by a problem and letting everything else fall by the wayside. I don’t feel like I owe my company anything, I do it for my own enjoyment. Sadly while working at home I’ve had none of these moments at all, I work very little and find it incredibly boring

> It didn't help that I was rewarded with more money, more respect, and more decision making power. I was even rewarded with more knowledge than everyone else -- you learn a lot working 12 hours a day. And if you screw something up you have plenty of time to fix it.

As an intern this feels like everything I want though. More money, more respect, more decision making power, and most importantly, more knowledge. Fortunately my job is done after 4 months no matter what.


I really like #1. There's a good quote I've been focusing on recently - "people tend to overestimate what they can accomplish in a day, and underestimate what they can accomplish in a year."

It's interesting to read so many comments against marathon sessions.

I can't imagine reading the same set of comments 20 years ago (when I was young and a frequent marathoner, as were my teammates).

Is this indicative of a cultural shift in the industry?

Or collective learning?

Or might it just be that no 20 somethings are commenting here and it's just a sample bias resulting from older commentators?

Do 20 something developers today feel that marathoning is a wasted effort, or do they tend to think it is the best way to get things done?

BTW I think I would agree with the comments now, but even 10 years ago I might have been dismissive.


> Is this indicative of a cultural shift in the industry?

Yes I think the industry is changing.

In my anecdotal experience, the quality of programmers has taken a nose dive. I think part of the reason is that it's been a lucrative industry for long enough that parents have had time to coach their children into the industry.

In the early-mid 2000s (when I cut my teeth) and especially in the 80s/90s (from what I hear) you came across more "hacker" types that were doing this work for the love of doing it. Yea you still had the "Initech" type companies that would outsource/etc but cutting edge programming work was a lot easier to find.

These days I'm seeing more and more people that treat programming as a "job", not a "passion".

Obviously I think this is a good thing for people, in general.

But I also think that, while the potential for software is at its highest, the actual relative quality of software is at its absolute lowest. This is due in large part to the bad quality of software engineering these days. Again, very anecdotal.


I suspect more people:

- see the rich vs poor divide

- see what it took for the rich to get there. And it isn't just "hard work".

Plenty of people work hard at all levels of life. But the "hard work as a virtue" meme is dying.


When you don't know anything (20-something), you need the marathon session to learn as well as to be productive.

When you know more, you are able to apply leverage to do more in less time, and a marathon session is a waste of time.

IMO, telling young folks not to push themselves is intellectually pulling up the ladder behind ourselves.


This “Type-A” hustle mentality resonates with me. I do see lots of people pushing back on it, ie ridiculing JD’s that mention passion, emphasizing work-life balance, disdain for “brogrammer” culture, etc. This seems especially prevalent on Twitter.

My personal life doesn’t allow me to do marathons. If I was single I would probably be hauling ass all day every day. I understand the health implications, but the desire to be “the best” or to be “10x” clouds my long-term vision.

I want to dominate like rms, Carmack, Beej, Eich, etc. That might put some people off, but technically, those same critics are my competition. If you don’t want to put in the same hours as me, that’s cool, but there aren’t an infinite amount of $200k+ roles in the world.


So to be clear, the myth of the 10x programmer is the person that learns Japanese when you start working with Japan as a market, sits around a lot talking about various types of teas, has an eidetic memory, has 3 months to write a major new service, and just thinks about it for like 2.5 months then comes in and types it in, in 30 hours. Not some well meaning person that makes up for a lack of skill by longer hours. Typing the wrong code in at 10 pm is harming the whole company. Hardworking and well-meaning programmers typing out a lot of code can be a disaster. The myth is "Much better the smart but lazy genius who thinks till the right solution is intuitively obvious."

Now I've know a few people like that, but in general it is a myth. But at least get the right myth. Long hours are not part of 10x myth. I mean unless you mean loves math/computer/etc. and is always learning weird complicated stuff. But that's "taking care of your mental flexibility and strength" not "working long hours to meet a deadline."


My understanding of 10x was basically a programmer who is 10x more productive than the average. I assumed the myth was dependent on the output, not necessarily the process...

If we accept it was a myth based on reality, the people that came closest to being that way were often more creative mad genuises that would have incredibly productive months or seasons, and within that top days or weeks, and then more ordinary times. Not plodding out 1 Kloc a day by just bearing down more but sitting around and joking and chatting about stuff then making some blazing new cathedral of technology that changed the game for all the programmers. I am thinking of the hyper growth days at AOL, so take it as one story.

I've always thought of brute force work (like marathons) as compensation for not being as gifted as rms, Carmack, etc.

Also part of the domination of those characters is simply being around early enough to get famous. There are loads of people as gifted if not more so who will never see the limelight particularly these days where so many people are working on personal brand building or straight up grifting.

Depending on your own goals brute force or giftedness might not even be necessary let alone sufficient. Particularly when it comes to external validation.


Yes! Unfortunately I was not born with Vitalik Buterin’s innate genius, so I understand I have to move myself forward more mechanically.

Disagree.

I am similar to you in where I am in my career, also similar profile in terms of how I got here, but I don't agree with you. I think this is a natural cycle and it shouldn't be sold as an insight or a learning.

Learning compounds, so if you spend an extra hour at 20 that is like a 1000 hours when you are 40. It is what it is. You have to balance at all times so as to not go over the edge, and loose touch with the feeling of meaning. So I don't regret burning myself from both ends at 20.

I have a kid now, and a family. Things are different, as much if not more fun. But I wouldn't want this life for my 20 year old version. He found meaning and growth in the trenches.


Thank you for taking the time to write this, I got a job at FANG right out of college and the impostor syndrome is real so I have compensated with a lot of extra work. Unfortunately the truth is at this scale my contribution makes little difference and the extra hours even less so. I just end up burning myself out over nothing.

> the impostor syndrome is real

Take this with a grain of salt, but I've found myself happiest working for small companies with people that I like being around. The list of reasons why is quite long (I can elaborate if you like), but the only unfortunate downside is you make a lot less money. You do have a chance of winning big in the acquisition lottery though.


I understand the premise of what you're saying, but I also feel like you're downplaying the upside:

> It didn't help that I was rewarded with more money, more respect, and more decision making power. I was even rewarded with more knowledge than everyone else -- you learn a lot working 12 hours a day. And if you screw something up you have plenty of time to fix it


This is true.

I was only able to reflect on these things after "making it". I feel comfortable financially and confident that I'll get work for the rest of my life, if I need it.

There was a cost though. Like a greek tragedy of sorts.

It cost me my health. I don't get to enjoy the spoils of "victory" as much as I would have when I felt healthy. Health is now a factor to consider daily and, in my case, it's directly attributed to the insane amount of myself that I put into the work.

Another cost was missing out on precious time with my wife and child. That one really sucks. No undoing that one.


I've been a developer for 40+ years and can really relate to this sub-thread. Now I'm spending time with my grand-children do I realise how much time I missed when my own children were growing up. Working those hours, building those products, helping the company grow, weeks on site, 96 hour weeks... all seemed so important then - and less so now.

I still love coding, learning new stuff and occasionally burning the candle, but I'll never again make it my god.


Great post. It reminded me of something I experienced in a previous job:

One of my coworkers worked a lot of overtime at one point, I think he liked to feel like the hero. In order to make sure a particular project was delivered in time.

Guess what happened? The client just randomly pushed the deadline back a few months making all the overtime unnecessary.

I know you can’t know if this will happen ahead of time, but it still reminded me that you can put in all the effort in the world and not get anything for it. Personally, I will do my absolute best within the confines of my contract, and no more. I might do some occasional overtime if it’s needed, but I expect my employer to return the favour when I need some time off or flexibility.

I’ve had too many health issues from my past bad work practices (it’s hard to have good work practices when doing your own startups...) to do any more than that. Hell im being treated for high blood pressure right now...


> Guess what happened? The client just randomly pushed the deadline back a few months making all the overtime unnecessary.

Sounds familiar.

I'd push hard to reach a deadline only to see the deadline get pushed back because other, more sensible people, were not bending over backwards for the company. These are other sensible people could be folks on other teams (eg: marketing), business partners (eg: launch partners), or even customers.

> I’ve had too many health issues from my past bad work practices (it’s hard to have good work practices when doing your own startups...) to do any more than that. Hell im being treated for high blood pressure right now...

I feel you. It's impacted my health as well. I think permanently.

I'm fortunate enough to have built up a financial war chest so that I can relax now, but boooy was I close to not having made it.


As a young person who works parttime as data-analist next to my studies;

I feel what you’re describing is part of growing older and being in a different phase of life. What you mentioned is something that I have read more often. I feel that the only way for me to appreciate work like you do, is to currently work more than might be healthy. As wrong as that might seem, it seems very right to me.

For instance, with my 16-hours/week I dont get done what I want. I’m sure it doesn’t matter in the long term, but there’s so many cool projects to do. I would love to be allowed to work in the evening to finish some cool stuff. I genuinely feel better after that. I expect to feel different about this after 15 years in the industry.

Maybe that’s just how we learn, maybe it’s societal expectations that we try to live up to and stop caring about when we’re older.


I consider myself fairly lucky to have landed a job at a place that figured this out right out of school.

The unhealthy behavior on my part is comparing myself to my friends who went to the Bay and make basically the same salary but get like $100k in RSUs per year on top of it, or those who have the mental endurance to juggle a FAANG job and fairly lucrative contract work on the side.

Even though the numbers are attractive, I enjoy having the time to have a life on the side. I don't really like the concept of "work is life" that the big bay area tech companies seem to have. Not exactly doing much with it right now, but I could if I wanted to...


How dare you describe me so accurately. But all jokes aside, this is my current situation and so far I've been unsuccessful in finding motivation without subjecting myself to bone-crushing anxiety that comes with working with people I think are way smarter than me.

Agree. But I think getting into a focused zone sometimes has a ramp-up period for me. So sometimes I need a long day to sort of get into a focus zone or wave that I can ride till next context switch.

Can you describe your current job and company?

No, but if you have a less open ended question then I'm happy to answer.

I am wondering what type of work you found that was better suited to the conclusions of your experiences.

What did it for me was financial independence. It's easier to set boundaries when the fear of missing out is gone.

When I started setting those boundaries (eg: not working evenings, weekends, etc) I discovered a few interesting things.

1) No one even noticed. It turns out most people are busy enough with their personal lives that my work schedule isn't on anyone's mind.

2) When there are delays we just push the date or adjust the scope. I'm no longer getting pats on the back for moving the needle at light speed, but I'm still outperforming my peers.

3) Now I need to be mindful about how I make my decisions. When I brute forced, I would throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. I'd eventually find the optimal solution to a problem and that's the only thing other people would see. They didn't see the 100 other failed attempts and wasted time. Now I don't have 100 attempts at solving a problem: I have like 5 attempts. It works out fine.

Could I have been doing this all along? Was my chaotic brute force working model just a lot of wasted energy? Could I have just worked smarter, not harder?


100% my experience. Burnout is never worth it.

That's the trap. I can pull off 16-hour days once in a while. They problem is that once I knew I can do that I tended to factor them into my planning, instead of treating them as the absolute exception that is actually harmful to my health.

Most coders I know have had occasional run ins with a rabbit hole where several days of their life got sucked into a single drawn out coding session with little breaks besides food, and had some of the most productive few days of their lives doing that.

If you need me to do a three day sprint, I'm going to accomplish the most without any breaks and with very sporadic sleep. (typically when doing a multi day session my sleep happens 30-120 minutes at a time, usually immediately following me hitting a difficult problem that requires intense rumination)


I would much rather code for 3 days non stop and then take a 4 day break doing some outdoors activity. I think the "business hours" schedule is fantastic for meetings to discuss but terrible for creative work.

The catch is than in many positions, one needs to blend these 2 modes of operation. Some collaboration, some deep work. Unless there's support throughout the organization, what ends up suffering is the deep work.


The problem is also that meetings and answering emails is much easier than deep work and therefore they are highly attractive procrastination pastimes.

Ugh. I find them incredibly draining. While if I can actually code for a few hours uninterrupted (this includes self interruption), I find I have so much more energy. Maybe it's the self congratulatory mind manipulation I play on myself when I'm productive. On the other hand, meetings that I have little stake in just exhaust me and derail my ability to focus for the entire day. This may be an ADHD thing though.

"Never work overtime longer than one week in a row" - one of Extreme Programming's tenets.

> multitasking, skipped breaks and long hours

From personal experience I think these are two very different things.

Context switching seems to me to have a cost directly proportional to the complexity of the task. If it takes me 10 minutes to get the mental model of something sorted and then I'm interrupted I'll lose most of that 10 minutes. I can fire off emails requiring little thought one after the other with little cost.

I find that working long hours/without breaks is completely trainable. I can do it productively for long lengths of time and the longer I do it the easier it gets. It's very tiring, and requires solid rest in between but it can be done and it can be very productive.

The intersection of the two is impossible for me. Interruptions seem to accelerate the slowly building fatigue markedly. It's as though almost all the effort goes into getting the mental model sorted and staying there is relatively cheap.


> I can fire off emails requiring little thought one after the other with little cost.

So can everyone else, which results in the state of the average modern inbox.


Yes, it's a sorry state of affairs. I'd escaped that sort of thing until recently when we started working with a client who behaves as though everybody lives in their inbox and sees emails seconds after they're sent. Explaining to them that I look maybe twice a day at emails was interesting.

Slack is my problem. I'm trying to train myself to be disciplined but too many people treat it as synchronous.


Probably because work culture was originally not knowledge/cognitive based, and the expectations were based on human endurance of physical expenditure, which has different load bearing characteristics.

I’d rather say: On passion. Since I’m 13, I’ve always programmed in long stretches, by passion. It’s please to absorbe oneself into a problem and solve it. Not saying it’s healthy, just saying it’s rooted in our human form, not in workplace traditions.

Do you find it's easy for you to head back into work at 9 am the next day? I'll have boughts, but they leave me drained and needing to recharge. I can't do it consistently, especially if the work isn't exciting.

Which bias, the bias to want to multi-task? It's not a bias, we're just stupid. We think we can do multiple things at once. And we can do multiple things at once, so our stupid brains have proof that we can multitask.

The problem is that humans can't objectively qualify their own results without analysis, and we don't do rigorous scientific analysis on ourselves regularly, so we have no idea when something we do is shit or not. The only facility we have for that is comparison and pattern recognition, which is not rigorous analysis. If you don't go out of your way to compare your results as a multi-tasker to the cumulative qualitative results of somebody else doing two different things, you will never see that multi-tasking is worse.


From what I've seen, multitasking tends to inversely correlate with how secure a person feels in their life. Multitasking seems to be driven (for me and those I've spoken to) by a sense that one needs to "catch up" or "get ahead". Dig a bit deeper and implicit beneath that is the feeling, "things aren't OK just as they are".

To me: If I'm behind schedule in important work, obsessed with a problem etc. NOT engaging with work feels a lot worse than working on it in reduced capacity. If I take a break, call it a day etc. my mind keeps working on it, I feel anxious etc. Working on the problem though, feels just fine. I'm just tired, but probably having fun.

Also the "gambler" instinct is there. I have solved hairy problems when I'm tired (because when you are out of ideas, you tend to consider creative options) though it is rare. But you seek the "rush" of solving it, finishing something that will give you a "high" for hours after you leave the desk.


I imagine it's a mix of:

a) people are different. some people can grind more than others

b) passion makes the grind easy. people passionate about a project can go harder longer, but expecting everyone to be passionate about their job is not healthy. this passion may appear or disappear depending on your task

As to how to fix it I have no clue. That's hard.


Ever since I learned that a lot of the standards for medical schedules, long work hours etc were set by a cocaine addict who believed it was natural to pull long hours (https://historydaily.org/cocaine-and-modern-medicine-a-twist...) it's really stuck with me.

So many bad practices basically persist due to inertia and we all suffer for it.


Medical errors kill around a quarter-million people a year. Third-leading cause of death.

Anderson JG, Abrahamson K. Your Health Care May Kill You: Medical Errors. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2017;234:13-17. PMID: 28186008.

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28186008/

Medical residents are capped at 80 hours per-week making around $50k/year, and this is sold as some sort of breakthrough over the previous system where they were working well-in-excess of those 80/week for years during their residency.

What is normalized in the healthcare system is beyond insane.


I really dislike reaching for these sorts of evolutionary "explanations". They're typically unconvincing ad hoc just-so stories with no real attempt at systematically establishing the truth of the various mutually contradictory claims. Evolutionary psychology is notorious in this regard.

Instead, I will only add that distractability is emotional and moral in nature. When I feel uncomfortable, I will be tempted to switch to something else to relieve the discomfort. The inability to engage in self-denial is one reason for indulging the temptation (which is why fasting and abstinence are great ways to engage in self-denial and strengthen one's self-mastery; you can always spot a person's weakness by the passions they overindulge and which seem to control them). Historically, this inability to do without pleasure was called effeminacy and the inability to bear discomfort was called delicacy (the Greek μαλακία has been translated into either, I think). Sustained focus is toil and toil is uncomfortable and requires both enduring discomfort and relinquishing pleasure.

Another reason may be related to mental health. Distractions and diversions become especially attractive when under duress.


>> Again and again, people just refuse to accept that cognitive performance has very clear limits, and that multitasking, skipped breaks and long hours are, at best, a total waste of time

These studies are non-ergodic. I work best under long hours; have tried both. The real proof in the pudding is the fact that many of my competitors work "efficient" work weeks and get buried under the onslaught of hours I work.

For surgical things like programming and software development, I'll readily admit that working 80 hours/week is not ideal. But for management and a wide-ranging entrepreneur, I strongly suspect the opposite is true.


Maybe, but if you're running a company you basically are doing highly leveraged decisions. Making more decisions is not nearly as important as making the right ones - and being overworked is not conducive to that.

Getting your sleep, eating well, exercising, seems more important.


I think you might get better results delegating more and reducing your hours. But you have more experience than me in this, so take that with plenty of skepticism.

it seems to me to be the white-collar version of the blue-collar "I have 14 jobs to stay afloat" thing, some sort of weird awfulness that a certain group has spun into a sign of moral goodness. Look how great things are, they work 3 jobs to pay the bills! Well, we only usually work 1 job, and we get paid a lot, so it's been spun until "look how many tasks they take on a day, aren't they great?".

If only work was organized to avoid multitasking.

I don't think it is just bias, as if changing a setting somewhere would fix it. There's no easy fix, like the pill in Limitless, if that's what you are thinking.

It is more an energy management issue. The human brain consumes 20% of our energy intake if we are resting. And about 28% of our energy intake if it is performing some effort.

And all this work also generates waste, which needs to be moved to the blood and this takes time.


Do people actually refuse to accept this? Are you sure they're not just doing something for a short-term benefit at the expense of long-term benefits? I don't refuse to accept that pulling an all-nighter is bad for my health and my efficiency, I just waited too long for a deadline and need to get stuff done by the morning. Likewise, I don't refuse to accept that a healthy diet is crucial to my health and wellbeing, I just really wanted some ice cream.

It's just that, from a evolutionary standpoint, the kind of work that we do nowadays, is totally unnatural.

So it's not strange that we have chaotic behaviors.


This is why set works hours for jobs that require more cognitive skills are silly. My brain is shot about after lunch until about 3-4pm and yet I'm forced to sit around and pretend to be productive. Yeah there are occasionally some low end tasks that could be done in that period but I'd be better off just taking a nap and zoning out.

Puritanism?

> Why do we have this bias?

It's about the control in hierarchy. The more one is flooded with streams of work, the lower is the chance of threatening somebody or leaving for greener pastures (leaving to worse ones is more likely for an exhausted person).


We evolve by trying to be better at what is needed of us to adapt. So yes, it's literally wired in as some sort of survival instinct.

And technically, if we keep struggling at it, over time (generations) we'll get better at it.


> Why do we have this bias? Is it deeply wired in some sort of survival instinct?

Dualism. Body is physical, mind is spiritual. Therefore, mind cannot fail.

Or some reasoning along those lines.


Because people with money don't care how many humans they burn through while building their empire. In the short term there are productivity improvements to be had, and long term the burned out components of the big machine just get replaced.

Cue the counterpoints of "I love to hustle". Sure you do, until you come down with burnout, a mental health issue, failed relationship, etc.


We love to hustle

People look down on the pursuit of money but appreciate the outcome

For the person that decides to efficiently pursue money at a higher velocity, the sooner they finish it the sooner they can recreate their social circle with new people that only see the outcome

I’m still around people that talk about gentrification and inequality, just from my penthouse apartment where they’ve mentally exempted me from being the very person they talk about


I'd vote to have no notifications (of any kind) from chat & messaging tools as the default. This too especially at work to reduce overload of multi-tasking. Even showing the number of messages on an icon in the taskbar is very distracting.

The downside of no notifications is that you must manually check for changes

I got on this train when I got my first iPhone. I turned off every notification except the ringer (no one calls me except free cruise spam, so maybe I should silence that).

At work, I disable all Slack messages and check Slack in my slack time. Email gets checked at 9AM and 4:30P.

It’s glorious.


Sounds glorious indeed! But what do you do when you need to send an email at 11:30? Do you send without looking? Or do you just wait until the next send window?

I'm genuinely interested in this because by far the most time-intensive distractor in my job is answering email. When I look at email at 9am I am usually busy replying until 10 at least. Then I get some work done which I need to send off by email at 11:30, seeing that I have 20 new emails of which 10 are somewhat relevant and 1 needs a reply.


I try to avoid the trap of the inbox if possible. If something is an emergency I’ll go log in, otherwise I keep a Apple Note with a checklist that I can add quick little blurbs to remind me of emails I need to write later.

>While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it's clear that multitasking has negative effects.

The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in attention management and impulsivity.[0] This has been known for quite some time. It has even been observed that children with ADHD have thinning in (some parts of) the anterior cingulate cortex.[1] It seems like quite a stretch to exclaim that multitasking itself causes that. It's obviously not impossible, but seems implausible - at least implausible enough to not make it a separate paragraph in a short article.

[0] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC53241/

[1] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23713508/


What concrete evidence would you like to see?

How do I know when I am multitasking? If I am cooking a meal, and that meal has several items on the go at once, am I multitasking? What if I have a complicated coding problem with multiple requirements which I have to consider, perhaps with political implications, so that I'm switching my thinking from a technical viewpoint, to a user experience viewpoint, to a "what will the leadership think" viewpoint? Is that multitasking?

Is the meal you are cooking a new recipe to you? You gotta plan and do things slower don't you? If it's something you know how to do, you don't really use brainpower on the serialization of when to do what, but experience. Good and fast cooking is all about serializing tasks, not doing multiple things at the same time.

My breakfast routines are routines, If I start to mix up my routine, egg, bread and coffee timings are all screwed up. I overcook the egg, coffee is late. I have noticed timing and serializing tasks is everything when cooking anything. I think this is where the french(?) mise en place comes from, prepare every ingredient before hand, so when you have multiple stoves going on, ingredients are ready and you can focus on time critical stuff.


For me, it's when I am consciously paying attention to more than one thing either "at the same time" (watching YouTube while cooking) or in rapid succession (run unit tests in the IDE, check email, look at story in JIRA, look at the weather on my phone, go back to the IDE to fix a failing test, ...).

I was in this mode for years, racing around on overdrive, and I've been slowly learning to do One. Thing. At. A. Time. again. It's been hard because the habit is so ingrained. And probably also because it 'feels' like I'm less productive.


Paying attention to more than one thing "at the same time" - is not humanly possible. So when you are simultaneously doing two tasks that demand attention, what you are actually doing is rapid context switching. The thing to understand is that - “attention has inertia”. Context switching has two implications:

1. It drains your energy - You have limited energy available every day. If you spend most of your energy in context switching, very less is available for actual work. And if you over-work, you cause real physical damage to yourself.

2. You can’t do any deep work - Deep work requires attention on a single thing for a sustained period of time.

The idea is to work with your attention - not against it. The best way to do that is to reduce context switching and eliminate attention residue. Here is how:

1. Short-duration tasks - When you pick a task, finish it completely before moving on to the next one. Have distraction-free slots for work and batch similar tasks together.

2. Long-duration tasks - Pause-and-resume approach. When you pause a task, take a mental dump of its current state. This helps in two ways - first, your attention will not linger when you move to the next task and second, it will be easier to pick up when you resume that task.


Genuine question then.. how are we supposed to function properly as software engineers, especially in jobs with long feedback loops?

The nature of my job is that I'm almost more of a train conductor than a software engineer. I configure a job, run it, then wait for 10-30 minutes to get the results. I do this for maybe 5 jobs at a time, on 5 different projects. Naturally I feel a lot of stress and cognitive burden while doing this but I figured it's part of the job.

Is this normal for backend, distributed-computing heavy jobs? Is there a better strategy I can adopt? Should I try to get a new role with a shorter compile-test feedback loop?


Thank you for putting this into words. It's crazy how normalised it is to have long feedback loops, when we're working on interactive computers rather than punch cards.

Multitasking in this context means doing multiple things concurrently, not consecutively. It may be hard to launch a job, switch over to configure another one, switch back when you get the results from the first, finish launching the second, reconfigure & relaunch the first, and then move on to the third while 1 & 2 are running etc etc etc... but it's not strictly multitasking, it's just ocntext switching.

Also hard, also expensive, just different.


Have you tried to alert yourself when a long-running job finishes? I know it might exacerbate context switching, but it often feels bad to know that a job has finished long long ago and that I've been playing my phone without knowing it.

A relevant HN post: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26259007


Get a frontend job, instant compile time haha

Not necessarily, our frontend repo takes almost as long as the backend to compile. I'm hoping we switch to esbuild at some point.

Can't wait till it is feature complete and CRA and Nextjs embrace it.

Yeah, but the loss of sanity usually cancels out the productivity gains.

For a developer, I think multitasking between two tasks (a higher priority task and a lower priority task that can be worked on while the higher priority task is blocked or waiting or otherwise stuck) is manageable and can work well. Beyond two the task switching cost gets too high in a hurry. It's also not good if management/customers are insisting that both tasks are very high priority, it's too stressful to juggle them then.

Two things having very high priority means really, neither are. I've reminded many a manager of this in the past.

I got so angry when a high-ranking police official was asked whether they'd start putting higher priority to a specific type of crime after some relate embarrassment on their part, and they answered, "Of course, we continue to prioritise every crime."

...that just means you don't prioritise any crime.


Exactly, the questions are always:

Which is it?

What is worth what?


I'm not sure that's multitasking per se. That's just prioritizing or triage.

You're still working on a single thing at a time.


But that's exactly what a multitasking OS does. When the current task is waiting on I/O, it switches to the other task. It executes one at a time (at least, once per core).

There's finishing one thing and letting the context go, and then asking "what is the next most urgent task" and then doing that task with single-pointed attention. There is also trying to mull over some software problem while a conference call where people are planning something that matters to you and you keep one ear out for if you are called out or a special topic to you is called out. The first is not harmful but the second certainly feels bad.

There's also getting into the next most urgent task and getting deep into it and being free to just ignore all notifications for however long vs. people expecting to ping you on slack and get a real time answer or invite you to a call with 10 minutes notice and expecting you to be there. Again, the second is stressful and injurious to good quality work.


No one really multitasks, it's all task switching.

Agreed. It’s multitasking when you switch between tasks before reaching a natural stopping point.

Yes, the Huberman Lab podcast talks about this: humans can bifocal-task if one of the tasks can be in the background.

Software developers are often expected to multitask, a lot, especially now in this new age of agile. This takes the form as multiple meetings per day, email saturation, multiple IM platforms, phone calls, the expectation to know and do everything as a “full stack” developer, context switching, reporting metrics, etc. If you work in multiple projects, all that overhead is just multiplied. This the current reality and I don’t see it changing any time soon because we designed this tyrannical system by which we now live.

What exactly is multitasking? I am a software developer. I listen to music while I work. Is that multitasking? If I pick up a different issue to work on while I wait for code review on another, is that multitasking?

From a computer science perspective, context switching is hugely expensive in humans, and that's why they are not good at multitasking.

Strictly speaking, even computers don't execute multiple tasks in parallel, at least not on the same core. Even with hyperthreading, each step in the pipeline can only work on one datum at a time. Computation is always serialised, and any context switching comes at a cost. It's just that in computers this cost doesn't matter so much, and/or it's outweighed by the benefits of weaving tasks into each other.

Nevertheless, Multitasking is a myth, technically.


Previous studies:

- "Women 'better at multitasking' than men, study finds"

https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24645100

This study:

- "Multitasking Lowers IQ"

- "Successful People Don't Multitask"

- "While more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask), it's clear that multitasking has negative effects."

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.


I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

You can do both but not at the same time.


> "Women 'better at multitasking' than men, study finds"

They tested this on Mythbusters and got the same result [1].

[1] https://mythresults.com/battle-of-the-sexes-round-2


The actual test, in any case:

> In each of their tests, the researchers split their subjects into two groups: those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and those who don't.

> In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame.

> They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. Their performance was horrible.

> Because the high multitaskers showed they couldn't ignore things, the researchers figured they were better at storing and organizing information. Maybe they had better memories.

> The second test proved that theory wrong. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance.

> "The low multitaskers did great," Ophir said. "The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains."

So the usual soft science dreck of investigating vague, ill-defined umbrella terms such as “multitasking” by investigating a highly constructed, specific scenario that never occurs in real life that falls under it, and then extrapolating this result to all of real life, not to mention inferring causation from correlation.

Logic of the form of “Eating is bad, because we fed our test subjects objects human beings normally never eat, and we concluded it was very averse to their health to eat marbles, shards of glass, and mercury.”


Multitasking adds more stress and in my experience also leads to burnout a lot quicker. It also makes more errors which makes it counter-productive in a lot of cases.

Not convinced by this article.

It looks like the author tries to make a point, cherry picking articles that fit his view.

First, there is no causal relationship, something he mentions "more research is needed to determine if multitasking is physically damaging the brain (versus existing brain damage that predisposes people to multitask)", but dismisses it right after "it's clear that multitasking has negative effects".

It is also interesting how he went from "smaller density" to "damage", which implies some kind of destruction rather than adaptation. Then there is all that part about EQ, which mixes bad behavior (not paying attention), with other forms of multitasking like having plenty of stuff open on your computer. I mean, I can monotask during a meeting by not paying attention at all. Then it connects it to the "brain damage" study by saying that some of EQ-related parts of the brain are also related to multitasking, without showing the whole picture.

The IQ and performance related part is more convincing, but also isn't really tied to the "brain damage" part. It is also a bit confusing as evidenced by a commenter asking "what is multitasking".

That IQ drops when you are doing two things at once is kind of obvious, but it is nice to have a study to back it up. The question is "is it worth it"? And now comes what I think is the only insightful part: media multitasking, basically having more than one thing on your screen(s) makes it harder to switch tasks properly.


People misunderstand what multitasking is.

If you're downloading a huge file that takes 1 hour, don't just stand there watching, put a timer on, and go work on a different task.

If you're copying a huge document, don't just stand there, put a timer on and go d another task.

Learning to recognize processes that can be run in parallel is key, but it doesn't mean to do 2 things at ones; anything that requires some level of thinking can only be done single-tasking.


So what to do now with that? It is the total opposite of "modern" work environments. Can't escape multitasking or can I?

I wonder what this says about pair programming, given that writing code and communicating are pretty different tasks, according to imaging: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-12-brain-code-decipher-n...

Or "talk me through it as you do it" whiteboard interviewing

Does it depend on the definition of multi-tasking?

We take multiple courses in colleges, and we switch context all the time. I often worked on an assignment or reviewed coursework between two classes. I usually took no fewer than 5 classes in a semester, and a class usually had 4 to 6 assignments, 2 to 3 midterms, and a final. So we often had multiple assignments or tests due at the same day, which means we had to work on multiple tasks in a day too.

Similarly, we became more multi-tasked when we grew more senior. A design review now, a product planning meeting in the next hour, followed by an 1-on-1 to discuss a particular issue, and then a task to write a white paper. Again, multi tasking in my eyes. One does carve out some quite time for deep think, but the majority of the time will be broken into back-to-back meetings for multiple tasks.


I think the point is, it is suboptimal. You’d get better results if you minimised the contextual splits for natural moments of completion rather than unnatural moments of interrupt.

This holds true in computing theory, feeding 10 things to a single core in sequence is more efficient than feeding 10 things at once and having the CPU handle interrupts.


Can I show this to my boss..? Jokes aside, I literally have felt the effects of multitasking in work. My brain stopped working effectively. In addition, I lost all desire to work.

I wish there wasn't a book advertised at the bottom of this article. I feel like I can't share it.


Warning - I read some early research about this topic, something I was interested in at the time, around 15 years ago. Since then I've been actively trying to avoid multitasking as much as possible over the last decade or so.

It did, I believe, have one unforeseen side-effect: I now struggle to multitask in relatively simple situations where it's necessary. Maybe it's just because I'm getting older (42), but I seem to struggle with it much more than any of my peers.

Still, I wouldn't change anything. I believe I'm as or more productive per unit of time than anyone I've worked with.

Edit - one more side effect: I used to regularly work 12+ hour days. Now I'm _completely_ spent after 7-8 hours, as those hours are so intense.


This is total crap. TL;DR;

1. When doing multiple things at once performance is reduced in each of those things (thank you capt. Obvious).

2. Doing multiple things at once in a specific setting correlates with reduced activity in some brain areas. Casuality not demonstrated either way. No demonstrated relationship between "brain damage" and lower activity, so the claim in the title is at least two logical errors away from the raw data.

3. Buy this new book about EQ (which is pseudoscientific crap on its own).


Yes, I'm surprised more HN folk don't call out #1. To be clear, the author is purporting that lower performance on an IQ test when doing another task means multitasking implies that a lower IQ. This seems crazy to me, but maybe I've been multitasking too much.

My wife (like many wives) multi-tasks to the extreme. Coordinating our household, and running a business means she always has about 100 things in her brain at once. Always on her phone, always planning, making lists, researching, ordering. It's certainly common, and a wonder to witness however I worry about the effects on her brain, as she has trouble sometimes vocalizing her thoughts. She often forgets someone's name, or something's name and it takes her a minute to slow down and find the words. It's happening more and more, and concerns her. I wonder if it's a byproduct of just age or years of multi-tasking and "mind juggling" so many things.

I recognize those symptoms. Happens to me too when stress levels have been constantly elevated for a while. Usually that's also when stupid errors start creeping into what I do. I think it might be an early sign of burnout.

I also had the same thing at my previous stressful always putting out fires job. Now I’m at a more laid back (and more productive) place and the brain/memory fatigue has gone away

I wonder if it is a biological thing. My wife excels at multitasking but I can barely do two things at a time. I did notice the delayed speech with my wife as well.

I'd hope not as I'm good at it, but my wife is awful at it. She pauses the TV to read a text message.

haha, it's the same deal for me and my wife

I'll gladly do 2-3 things at once all day, but she has to pause the TV to answer a question or read a text message

I don't think I'm as good at multitasking as lot of people in this thread, though.. I can multitask while programming and feel like I'm doing a great job, but then in retrospect it's clear that my output was maybe 20% of what it would've been if I'd been fully focused

I found that out in college, homework assignments would take 30 minutes at my desk or multiple hours in front of the TV

I think I need to get better about silencing Slack and keeping the web browser closed at work, come to think of it.. It's dang frustrating having to wait 2+ minutes for something to compile and run though..


Multitasking gets a bad rap but I would suggest that not everything we call "multitasking" disrupts focus. For example, many tasks become background processes and some provide rhythm for improved focus. In my experience, for example, listening to a Lex Fridman podcast while doing Photoshop design works great together and I think is better when done together than not, perhaps using different parts of the brain. Likewise, listening to music while coding are complementary tasks for me. So some tasks multitask together with others fine and improve focus, while others interrupt or disrupt focus, in my experience.

There does seem to be some more bandwidth combining “art” and “science”. Trying to listen to any talking while programming is almost impossible but if I’m drawing or sculpting or anything like that then it’s more complementary

Yup. The key is to find combinations of activities that don't conflict with each other.

I also can work and breathe at the same time (neat trick). /s


Right. I love to listen to music while coding, but I couldn't listen to a podcast. I've tried, but I can't write words and listen to words at the same time. But music is no problem.

I can only listen to instrumental music, anything with lyrics kills my productivity.

Somewhat of a personal tangent, but I exclusively use 1 screen, and rarely split windows or have more than 1 application open when working. When I need to bounce between code/browser, documentation/code, or email/HN, I use the alt/command-tab functionality.

I find it slower having to switch between viewing different screens or moving my head, yet I'm the only one in my friend group who does this -- everyone else seems to prefer dual monitors.

I'm curious if HN people find that dual monitors feel like more of a distraction, and if it's at all related to multitasking.


I definitely find dual monitors or more for splitting code, documentation, or other relevant project information to be similar to having multiple papers lying across my desk. I don’t want to stack the pages on top of one another but instead I prefer to lie them all on one large desk. Usually I’m only working on one page but need other references. If another paper truly is important than I can use Spectacle to quickly reorganize.

Having email, slack, discord, or HN open is an absolute no go. Nothing more distracting than focusing on a project and seeing new emails or messages stream in. I try to limit those to a separate laptop or tablet at all times.


I’m just like you. In the afternoons, I switch from my monitor to just my laptop. I sometimes prefer a smaller screen so I experience less eyestrain

It's not so much about number of monitors but screen estate.

This has been a long time struggle for me and I’ve noticed it’s deteriorating effects especially with quarantine. I’ve been getting some reminders from here and deep work which has helped me immensely

Maybe you are already cognitive impaired which is why you tend towards multitasking, because your brain is saying focusing too long hurts it. It’s a subconscious move.


No wonder we have a hard-time writing multi-threaded code ;)

personal anecdote but after trying too hard and feeling actual physical "pain" I came to the conclusion that learning needs a threshold of closure (which feels good), a coarse level conclusion about what was just processed. Piling up unconclusive signals on top of each other results in wounds it seems.

There's something fishy about the "multitasking [and long working hours] is bad" fad of the past 10 years.

If I had to guess, it's that these studies aren't sensitive to the outliers. Imagine telling e.g. Elon Musk "multitasking and long hours are bad for your productivity".

I've been keeping very detailed data on my personal productivity for years, while taking all of the consensus wisdom ("long hours = bad", "multitasking = bad") to heart. What I've instead found is that long hours (literal 14+ hour days) makes me more consistently productive.

Multitasking also has a strong synergistic component to it that I suspect doesn't show up in these narrow studies.* If multitasking across different projects leads to insights that shave years off of your respective project plans, but otherwise makes you slower locally, it's still more than worth it. Again using Elon as an example: Tesla and SpaceX have been made mutually stronger by insights being cross applied the two enterprises.

* To be fair I'm speaking more of multitasking at the project level, not at the minute-to-minute level.


Maybe humans need a little bit of everything? Short working hours interspersed with a few longer days, focusing on some days, and intense multitasking and coordination on others?

So if you're life currently involves only long days filled with multitasking (probably very common in some walks of life) the solution involves shorter days and more focused time, whereas for others it might be the other way around.

Whatever the truth is, I highly doubt humans are optimised specifically for exactly eight (or six) hours of focused work every day. I suspect we are helped by some variation, including the occasional 14 hour multitasking day.


Curious by which metric you are measuring productivity.

Also wouldn't it make quite a difference on what time scale you are multi-tasking? If it's on the time scale of days between context switches or hours/minutes.


But by focusing the on just one - SpaceX might be on Mars, and Tesla might have a real self-driving car.

Unfortunately it’s difficult to test that hypothesis. And it’s survivor bias to pick Elon Musk.


Multitasking and doing many things in a long shift are not synonymous if those things are not interrupted. The damage of multitasking is the interruption and the consequent context switch.

Working 12-14 hours a day on a couple of things is more in line with deep work, which is actually very productive for alot of people.


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