Working in Serial

There is an ongoing debate about multitasking. People that do it claim it makes them much more efficient, although research shows it doesn't. People then believe they are exceptions to the research, and that most people just don't multitask as well as they do. Over time I have reluctantly come to favor the anti-multitasking argument. Not that it isn't possible, just that it takes away focus from any really important tasks at hand. If I'm going to multitask, it will be something like watching tv while folding laundry. (in case Mrs. Businesspundit reads this – no, I don't remember the last time I folded laundry, but I problemably watched tv while I did it).

Anyway, I found this interesting post about working serially, and of course the engineering analogy resonated strongly. Here is the crux of the post.

Since working in parallel is learned behavior brought on by peer pressure, how do we break that habit? Becoming productive is the best way to do it. What will be the hardest habit to break is working in parallel sometimes and working in series in others. In electronics, surprisingly enough, this is called a series / parallel circuit. It has definite current drops over portions of the circuit while constant current across others. More than likely, in some way, this is how we all behave. We try to check our email while in meetings. We try to type while on the phone with another. However, when faced with a large task, we devote all of our time to finishing it, so that we can go back to checking our email and catching that 2 o'clock by the skin of our teeth.

I am going to tell you to stop doing that. Treat everything as you do that big project. Devout time to checking your email and answering it, then stop checking until the next devoted time. If you have a 2 o'clock meeting, devote your energy to making that a successful meeting. Do your job to the best of your abilities for each task that you have. What you will find you are working less, as you are not having to go back and redo the things that you did last week. You will also find that you are setting more accurate priorities based on your capacity, rather than based on your workload.

This is one reason I think entrepreneurs can be very effective when their companies grow into stable organizations, or when they have to return to the workforce for some reason. Because of the massive amount of work there is to do in an entrepreneurial organization, you learn to prioritize, and you learn to let go of some things. It's healthy. And it's effective. For those of you interested in working serially, I would suggest the Getting Things Done model.

Hat tip to Jotzel for the post.

  • There is another advantage to serialization: if the task involves dealing with another human being, face to face, you will create a much stronger impression if you visibly focus entirely on the conversation, without fiddling with your Blackberry or whatever.

    I suspect virtually all human thought is serialized at some level; the question is, what level? Do you jump around in 3-second chunks, 3-minute chunks, or 30-minute chunks? There are pRobably significant individual differences in what works best, but social pressures today encourage the 3-second mode even for those who are better off with a longer time quantum…

  • Good point David.

    But besides creating a stronger impression (very important) and gaining situational trust (also important) if you focus instead of fidgeting you are more likely to comprehend what’s being said and what it means.

    As hard as it is to imagine when someone tells you, “You just don’t understand!” you pRobably don’t.

  • Entrepreneurs and salespeople have to deal with multiple tasks on a daily basis. Those that do it well prosper, because both types of efforts naturally reward those who can take responsibility for their actions and those never-ending “to do” lists. Those that can’t handle the responsibility will fail.

    Multi-tasking, once something to marvel at by those who could somehow juggle all those balls in the air without letting the drop, is no commonplace. It’s expected of those who hope to succeed in today’s business and sales environment. We talk about that subject a lot at and its a constant source of debate, but I think its obvious that in today’s world you have to have the ability to multi-task.

    Great thought provoking post…thanks! I’m going to comment on my blog and post back to you.

  • I’m not sure that my point was that we think in serial, but rather than we should work in serial;) I agree with you on the thought process and its an interesting thought, but deals more with concentration than task accomplishment;)

    As far as having to deal with multiple task, agreed. However, you don’t have to work on multiple tasks at once. I’m in sales, and I am I am fairly successful;) Being able to juggle multiple tasks has nothing to do with accomplishing tasks in a serial fashion, in my humble opinion. Each and everytime I try to type an email on one subject and talk on the phone on another, I do a poor job, and I don’t give either job the necessary attention that they deserve.

    I set my priorities and I follow them. Why on earth would I want to divert attention to a low priority item, while I am working on a high priority item? I’d much rather do both right (the first time) and but rather take them on in a vertical line, rather than a horizontal one.

    Just my thoughts (which are rarely right, and even less listened to;)