Multitasking Is Bad, Multiprojecting Is Good

I often read the advice that you should only work on one thing at a time. But many people confuse multitasking with multiprojecting.

Here are some of the projects I worked on yesterday:

  • I am editing and republishing excerpts from my #Workout book on various websites and networks, such as LinkedIn and Medium. Yesterday, I submitted an excerpt for publication on Huffington Post.
  • I am professionalizing my public speaking profile, which started with the creation of a new website. Yesterday, I made a new Statement of Work document for all my future clients.
  • I have started organizing Happy Melly Coffee sessions, where I discuss great questions with Happy Melly members. Yesterday, I announced the next meeting for Friday afternoon.
  • I am developing a new measurement practice as an alternative to OKRs. Yesterday, I collected metrics about my website, blog, social networks, and speaking engagements.
  • I am creating a transformation proposal for large customers who want more from me than just a one-hour speech. Yesterday, I started transforming my notes into a nice-looking slide deck.
  • I am creating new content modules for Management 3.0 events. Yesterday, I researched third-party articles and videos on the topics of values and culture.
  • I am developing a knowledge base for Management 3.0 facilitators. Yesterday, I wrote a template marketing plan based on my own marketing experiences.
  • I am always reading about things that interest me. Yesterday, I read a few chapters of the book The End of Jobs.
  • I am always writing about things that interest me. Yesterday, I was writing about multitasking and multiprojecting.
  • I keep trying to improve my health, physically and mentally. Yesterday, I had a 10K run in the forest.

As you can see, I have at least ten projects going on, and that’s just the work-related side of my day. I won’t bore you with the details of cleaning up our apartment in Brussels, remote-managing the replacement of a fridge in Rotterdam, and evaluating/sorting thousands of MP3 files.

That is not multitasking!

Multitasking (or task-switching) is answering the phone while driving your car. It’s replying to Facebook messages while writing a blog post. It’s answering your manager’s questions while fixing a bug. Multitasking (or task-switching) is not good for you. In fact, it’s bad, bad, bad! Bad for your productivity, bad for your health, and bad for your safety.

Tim Harford wrote a fantastic article about it here: Multi-tasking – How to Survive in the 21st Century

But multiprojecting (or project-switching) is good!

The benefits of working on different projects are increased creativity (cross-pollinating ideas between projects speeds things up), increased flexibility (doing something else while waiting for others speeds things up), and increased motivation (having a variety of work during the day is less tiresome and, again, speeds things up). Multiprojecting enables higher productivity. And besides, for many projects it’s just impossible to focus on the same work all day long. (Try writing blog posts eight hours per day–you’ll see!)

Of course, you should do multiprojecting (or project-switching) in a smart way. I use my chunking technique to make sure that I keep my focus on one task for anywhere between 10 to 60 minutes. No emails, no phone, no Twitter updates. Then I take a little break to defocus. (“Hello world! What happened?”) And then I switch to focus on another task from another project. Because I have such a variety of ongoing projects, I can keep my motivation for 10 or more hours per day. Every hour is different!

It’s easier to think outside the box if the box is full of holes. And it’s also easier to think outside the box if you spend a lot of time clambering between different boxes.

– Tim Harford, Multi-tasking: How to Survive In the 21st Century

Doesn’t that mean that the lead time for completing projects increases? Of course! But my stakeholders don’t care, and neither do I. Shorter delivery times aren’t the only way to create value. I am not Amazon.

People often wonder how I can be so productive. The answer is simple: I am a relentless multi-projecter, which gives me increased creativity, flexibility, and motivation. A lot of projects will finish. It just takes a little while.

Whenever someone warns you that you shouldn’t be working on different things, because it’s bad for your productivity, tell them the problem is multitasking, not multiprojecting.

How about you? Are you a proud multi-projecter?

p.s. I did not check my Twitter, Facebook or Slack streams while writing or publishing this post. I’m a multi-projecter, not a multi-tasker.

Image: (c) 2007 Peter Shanks, Creative Commons

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  • Lukasz Stilger

    Your list of projects seems to be sequenced, so there is no problem of switching energy. The problem is when you “switch” to many times, no matter if it is a task or project. The thing is to manage the sequences according to priorities. The question is what you do when occurs unexpected task with higher priority? One to survive is to manage buffers, like Critical Chain of Gondratt.

    • jurgenappelo

      Sorry, I don’t understand what you mean. What is “sequenced”?

      Everything I do happens one-after-the-other, so everything is sequenced.

      The trick is to cut all work to small fragments that I call “chunks” of no more than an hour. Doesn’t matter which kind of project I do that with.

      • Lukasz Stilger

        What do you do when you cannot continue project (even “chunk”) because of objective reasons?

        • jurgenappelo

          Isn’t that obvious? I switch to another project.

  • Alex Fürstenau

    Nice post.
    I think a lot has to do with personality. Some people like to dig deep into one project or task. They don’t want to be distracted (mostly developers 🙂 ) Other people like to switch focus on different topics or projects. So the number of projects per day/week one is comfortable with is different for each person. @jurgenappelo:disqus do you have a number of projects you are comfortable or not comfortable with?

    • jurgenappelo

      Thanks! I have between 10 to 20 chunks of work per day. In theory, they could all be from different projects, but I don’t like that of course. Too much switching. I say less than 10 ongoing projects per day is fine for me. But sometimes I like to focus on just a few. Usually to finish something that has a deadline.

  • Marc Hemerik

    Great advise!
    The context in this article is 1 person projects.
    Do you also think that the research done by Weinberg on (multi-person) project switching needs to be revised/modernized? See picture.
    (ref: Weinberg,
    Gerald M. 1992 Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking. Dorset House,
    p. 284)

    • jurgenappelo

      “working time available” says nothing about creativity and productivity per hour. When working on just one boring project all day long, I could be looking out the window for 8 hours due to lack of inspiration and motivation.

  • Raouf Abrougui

    I agree with you: Running a single task or project (eg write on a blog) all day is boring.

    But I think that this question of mutli projects is a little more complicated:

    – Often, people change project to do almost the same thing, in another context. In the case you described, the activity itself changes. This is not the case of the developers I’ve met in my missions.

    – Generally, people change project because they have to: it is the urgency which guide them. What you talking about is a freely choice (well, almost even if you are forced to advance on several projects every day).

    – Some people do not have the physical ability to do what you’re doing. The ability to work on multiple projects varies greatly from one person to another.

    So I think you’re partially right, according to circumstances … My concern is that your title gives the impression that the multi projects is good in all cases and for everybody. Well, thi is how I understood it 😉

    Always a pleasure to read your articles 🙂

    And sorry for my bad English : it is very hard for me to write and express my self in English 😉

    • jurgenappelo

      Most people know that I am rarely dogmatic. 🙂

  • Brittany Michaels

    Thank you for this article. I completely agree that multi-projecting has many benefits as you mentioned and multi-tasking can be counterproductive. Articles like this need to be published more because the term “multitasking” is still used quite a bit and not everyone
    understands the downside to it. When you multi-project you give your complete focus and attention to the task/project/conference call in front of you.

    They only struggle I have with the terminology is multi-projecting can sound like you are working on multiple projects (like tasks) at the same time, but really there is incremental time used on one project then more time used on a different project but not at the same time. A different new name for this work approach may be better, but unfortunately I can’t think of one.

    One last comment is I recently learned of the pomodoro technique and think it relates to this article here so wanted to share more information about it.

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  • Trang Trinh

    Thanks for bringing us a good concept in working. I am totally getting your idea about multi-projecting and multi-tasking. It is clear that multi-projecting is creating more
    productivity than multi-tasking and it can apply for business management. Also,
    being multi-projecting is a way to cope with variety of projects at the same
    period and brings the best result.

    However, how to realize multi-tasking or multi-projecting at work is a problem. In my opinion, we might divide task, job, or project into category. In doing so, we can easy to
    schedule works in a day to accomplish and be productivity our valued day.

    I am a multi-tasking person as I assume before. I can handle 2-3 tasks at the same time such as watching movie and writing essay at the same time. Yet, it does not bring the
    best outcome. Thanks for enlightening me a new way of working.

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