Multitasking, Microtasking, and Macrotasking

One of the most frustrating things in my daily life is reaching lunch and not having a single thing I can point to as “done” for the day. I’m certain this is something every engineer faces from time to time — or even all the time (like me), because even Dilbert has something to say about it.


This is all the more frustrating for me because I actually don’t have clones (contrary to rumor #1), and I actually do sleep (contrary to rumor #2). I even spend time with my wife and kids from time to time, as well as volunteer at a local church and seminary (teaching philosophy/ethics/logic/theology/worldview/apologetics to a high school class, and being a web master/all around IT resource, guest lecturer, etc., in the other). My life’s motto seems to be waste not a moment, from reading to writing to research to, well just about everything that doesn’t involve other people (I try to never be in a hurry when dealing with people, though this it’s honestly hard to do).

So, without clones, and with sleep, how can we all learn to be more productive? I’m no master of time (honestly), but my first rule is: reduce multitasking. Why?

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers also found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time. -via Forbes

We all know this is good for us, right? But how do you actually reduce multitasking in the real world? I have a number of techniques I use; for this post I’m going to focus on a single technique I use to reduce the impact of multitasking (see what I did there?).

When we think of multitasking, we tend to think of what I call microtasking — self-interruption either because of the tyranny of the immediate, or because we can’t finish what we’re doing until we’ve done something else. A perfect example of microtasking might be the story my grandfather used to tell me about the farmer who played checkers ’til dinner. He didn’t start out with playing checkers in mind, of course; he started out to bail the hay. But on picking up his the bailing fork in the morning, he realized the handle was in bad shape, so he decided to run into town and buy a new one. While there, he realized he needed to fill his truck up with gas, so he stopped for a second, only to glance across the street and think, “while I’m here, I might as well go to the barber’s and get my hair cut…” While getting his hair cut, he realized it was just about time for lunch, and some of his friends were in town, so he stepped into the local diner for a bite with them. After lunch, of course, they started a checker game.

And soon enough, it was dinner time.

The point is, of course, set out to do one thing, and do that one thing. Do one thing ’til you’re done. Then do something else. Instead of microtasking, macrotask. I have a very large todo list; each morning, I get up, pick one thing, and refuse to do pretty much anything else off my list until that one thing is done. And if I don’t get it done? I get up the next morning and start again where I left off. What happens if I’m interrupted along the way? I return to it as quickly as possible and work on it ’til it’s done. Once my head is “in” something, I want to keep it there ’til I’m done.

In the process, if I find a broken tool, or something new to write about, or something new I need to research, I put those on the todo list. I don’t stop what I’m doing to work on something else. I can’t stop interruptions (more on interruptions in a later post), but I can minimize their impact by working on a single task ’til I’m done. What I don’t do is say, “well, now that I’ve broken off in the middle of that sentence, I might as well work on something else for a while.” Don’t do that.

Of course it doesn’t always work. Sometimes the bailing fork just needs to be fixed, and I re queue my “main task” ’til it’s fixed. There is still the tyranny of the immediate to manage. But what I find the most difficult is the feeling that I have so much on my todo list that I should be time slicing, or doing a little of this and a little of that, because I could be getting more done. I have to remind myself this feeling is just that — a feeling. Experience shows the feeling is wrong.

So, to start: don’t microtask. Instead, macrotask.

You can’t get rid of it entirely, of course, but you can reduce the multitasking that naturally springs up in your life like weeds.

Lifehacker and Joel on Software have excellent pieces about multitasking available, as well.


  1. Michael Kashin on 19 October 2015 at 7:03 pm

    Excellent read, as always. The kind of post that needs to be re-read regularly.
    So your tasks queue is it a FIFO, WFQ or CBWFQ? do you pick a new task based on its size or based on some other criteria like urgency or personal interest? Also if it’s not FIFO, some tasks main remain in the queue for too long, so do you have like a drop threshold (e.g. if it’s been sitting in the queue for 2 months and i haven’t started it, it’s not worth doing)

    • Russ on 20 October 2015 at 8:13 am

      Excellent questions! My task queue is a priority queue for the most part, sorted somewhat along the lines of shifting between work for my day job and “other stuff” in a way that’s fair to my paycheck (absolutely prioritizing my day job doesn’t always work — work/life balance comes into play), then what the next deadline is, then how much time I have versus what I think the task is going to take, and then finally “what’s interesting.” Learning tasks tend to fall outside the main queue, if you will — I spend at least an hour a day reading or learning, with a separate queue for stuff I want to learn.

      Older tasks do “fall off the queue” at some point, just like older emails, but I don’t have a definite time period — it all depends on the apparent relevance of the task over time. There’s this mode in EIGRP called “OBE” — this is closer to the reality for things dropping off. One OBE reason might be “my queue is too long, I won’t ever get this done,” though.