In high school, my free time was spent on making art, contributing to a magazine, writing, freelancing, designing, and sporadically working for startups. I largely considered these activities as passion projects—undertakings that had no immediate impact on my personal well-being or then-nonexistent career.
Now, years later, I continue to engage in these endeavors but with a more strategic approach to how and where I invest my time. This change has sometimes resulted in a productivity loop, trapping me in cycles of high output followed by burnout and periods of decision paralysis as I contemplate the next set of tasks.
The human brain is wired to focus on only one task at any given moment. When you attempt to multitask, you're not actually accomplishing multiple things simultaneously. For instance, many of us have tried to work while watching sports or a TV show. Upon closer examination, you'll find that you're not really doing two things at once; you're just switching between tasks, disrupting your concentration each time.
This type of context switching has cognitive costs. For programmers, switching between two codebases requires offloading one project's current state, including its variables and scopes, before loading another. This switching incurs both a temporal and mental penalty.
The more frequently you switch tasks, the higher the total cost in terms of time and fatigue. Research shows that task-switching can lead to a loss of up to 40% in productivity.
Without proper planning, you might find yourself aimlessly juggling tasks, leading to burnout or decision paralysis—a state where you waste time trying to decide your next move, ultimately accomplishing nothing.
The simplest solution:
- Create a list and refrain from adding to it later.
- Prioritize the list's items without altering them afterward.
- Eliminate distractions.
- Complete tasks in order of priority, one at a time.
- Take a break.
I've been implementing this method to various extents– ranging from a couple hours to a day or weeks ay times, depending on the tasks' complexity. While this approach isn't a rigorous experiment, it has consistently improved my productivity over the last few weeks.
Though multitasking may seem harmless for everyday tasks, frequent switches can have a compounding negative effect on your overall productivity. The best strategy, therefore, is to plan rigorously and execute tasks deliberately, one at a time.
Five years later, I have an addendum to this post.
Recently, I've divided my time into two primary categories—structured and unstructured time. When I know the direction I want to pursue and the work that needs to be done, I adopt an approach similar to the one described above to efficiently complete the tasks at hand. Conversely, unstructured time is when I follow my instincts and let spontaneity dictate how I spend my time—this istime for creativity, relaxation, and unwinding.
On most days, I have a clear idea of what needs to be accomplished, so a part of my day is invariably spent in a structured manner. When striving toward a goal, I've found that organizing my time yields the best results.
Whenever possible, I try to allocate more time to unstructured activities—typically during evenings, nights, and sometimes entire days. A significant portion of both my work and leisure activities involves creativity, and I've discovered that this approach suits me best. Creative journeys often benefit from the freedom of exploration, allowing thoughts and ideas to unfurl naturally, without expectation.
These two approaches to time management are synergistic in maintaining my energy and focus. Unstructured time naturally informs what I tackle during structured periods, and vice versa.
It's a rhythm, and like most aspects of life, achieving a healthy balance is the way to go.