Focus is Foolish: Why Entrepreneurs Must Minimize Multitask Overhead


Via the Intuitive Life Blog I came across this post listing ten advantages of ADD for a high tech career. I began to think about multitasking, ADD, entrepreneurship, and the future of business.

When I used to run the daily operations of a small business, I had to do a million different things. I would get to work early to start on my to-do list, and some days the phone would start ringing. The next thing I knew, it was 8pm and I had not touched a single thing on my list. Blocking out time for paperwork would have meant angry customers and sure failure for my business.

Research continues to show that multitasking is counterproductive, yet we continue to do more of it. So what's the deal? The truth is that people have differen levels of effectiveness at multitasking. And, like anything else that involves your brain, practice will make you better.

It is fine to be a contrarian when you are dealing with things that people are overlooking or cyclical things that will eventually turn your way again. But sometimes change is permanent and you have to adapt. Sooner or later interest rates may go your way again, but the horse and buggy is never coming back. Likewise, the days of paper are fading away. Digital devices will rule the future. You might as well learn to go with the flow and shift gears as often as necessary to get the job done. The key is how much overhead it requires you to switch to a new mental task.

Everything you do requires a bit of time to get ready. You need a moment to understand the context, and you need new supplies (sometimes physical, and always mental). You don't come home from a wedding and immediately switch to mowing the grass without changing clothes. And you can't switch from talking to a customer to debating a new strategy to analyzing someone's code without a brief pause to gather the mental context. This is your mental overhead. It is the load you require to get set up so that you can work on the next thing. In a digital future, those that most efficiently manage their overhead will have a competitive advantage. Entrepreneurs in particular need to be able to change roles quickly. And that is where the web comes in.

Some people complain about sites like Reddit and Digg eating up their time. But if you are good, they shouldn't. If you are good, you should be able to blow through the sites and quickly pick out the important stuff that you need, then move on to something else. Practice makes perfect, and the mass of content on the web these days is simply a training ground for future entrepreneurs. In addition, creativity comes from the blending of lots of ideas. The principle behind the IdeaFestival held here in KY each year is that by bringing together lots of people from different disciplines, you can create new knowledge by applying ideas from one field to problems in another (this year's list of speakers is here).

You wouldn't tell a sprinter he could win by training like a marathoner, and you can't run a tech startup if you live like a Buddhist monk. You just won't have the speed required when the time comes that you need it.

You wouldn't tell a basketball player he could just practice free throws and ignore dribbling, passing, and defense. Likewise, you can't run a business if you only know one thing and have no clue about the basic role of the other players.

The world is full of people that just want to slow down and do one thing. They want the easy path. They want their jobs and their lives to be simple. Hire those people to work for you and let them deal with the less important stuff. For entrepreneurs, the key is moving fast and understanding the big picture – how it all fits together.

Don't be slow in a fast world. Learn to microchunk your mind, and you will have a huge lead over the competition.

(Yes I know what I wrote previously. I'll explain the apparent contradiction on Friday)

  • James Baratz of recently gave a talk on the benefits of unitasking. He states that when people multitask they are not as mindful of what they are doing and thereby do not enjoy as much of the moments in life.

  • I struggle with this on a daily basis, but I have found that rather than microchunking, it might make more sense to macro-chunk. When you sit down to write code, just write code. When you answer email, just answer email, and while you’re at, answer all of it. When you plan to be on the phone, then get through your phone calls list. Otherwise, keep your phone on silent while you actually work. People don’t mind leaving a message if they know you’ll get back to them.

  • You for sure need to be nimble and move fast as an entrepreneur. My days are a continuous micro-chunk fest if you will. I understand what the people who work for me do, and I put in my 2-cents on top of their responsibilities and let them go get it done. However, I also agree with Cesar’s comment. You need to find dedicated non-multitasking blocks of time where you focus on one type of thing and one thing only. For the projects that you do yourself that tend to be like those of the people who focus on one thing and who work for you, you need focused time. Otherwise, entrepreneurs and our inherent ADD make that type of project pretty difficult to complete.