Those who chase two hares won’t even catch one

Japanese Proverb

二兎を追う者は一兎をも得ず 

nito wo oumono wa otto wo mo ezu

English translation: Those who chase two hares won’t even catch one.

Have you seen the NBC series Parks & Recreation? I love this show. The banter and the comedy are right up my alley. There’s an episode (one of my favorites) where Ron Swanson advises Lesley Knope.

Lesley is considering running in a public office election and is also trying to balance working full-time as the Deputy Director of the Parks & Rec office. She is showing signs of being tired and is starting to miss deadlines, which is very uncharacteristic. In recalling his experience working both in a tannery and a sheet metal factory at the age of 11, Ron concluded: “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” Great life advice from a brilliant life philosopher, Swanson-sensei. 

When I look at the proverb “Those who chase two hares won’t even catch one,” I think it shares this meaning. When your focus is divided, you’ll fail to succeed at either. But isn’t that what we are doing when we think we can be the first ones to master multitasking?

Divided focus

Throughout my career, I have felt the pressure to get more done, please everyone, and somehow achieve timelines that weren’t thought possible. But I changed my stance on multitasking a while ago when I realized it wasn’t helping me get more done. It was preventing me from getting more done.

It seems counter-intuitive on the surface, but when you dig deep you discover when you are multitasking you are introducing extra steps into your process. The reason behind this? There is a switching cost when you stop doing one thing to start doing another. Let me illustrate this with an example.

Let’s say you have 4 things you need to get done. For the sake of the example, let’s assume that each task requires 1 full day of your attention (8 hours). Research done out of the Irvine campus of the University of California suggests that every time you are interrupted in your day you lose 20-30 minutes when trying to get back to what you were doing previously. It’s safe to assume that the switching cost wouldn’t be as high if we were making a choice, but there would still be a cost. Let’s say half or 10 minutes.

If you tried to do each task in one day split over 8 hours, you would think you could get 2 hours of productivity on each task. But that isn’t what would happen. You would likely get 2 hours on the first task, but then when you introduce the second task you lose 10 minutes. And this would happen after you switch from the 2nd to the 3rd and the 3rd to the 4th. If you add up the time you get 8.5 hours. 

If you held a strict 8-hour workday, you would be starting the next day on the 4th task, and the whole thing snowballs from there. If you add up all of the switching costs for the week it ends up spilling over into 5 days instead of being able to get everything done in 4. This also doesn’t account for the unintended interruptions you might get throughout the day, which will introduce you to 20-30 minutes of lost time.

Not only is there the myth of multitasking, but there is also a high cost of switching between tasks/activities, which can make it difficult to develop mastery of a skill. 

Prevents mastery

If we subscribe to the idea presented by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes around 10,000 hours to develop mastery in something, we can see how the switching cost can create an unnecessary delay in you achieving that mastery.

Maybe the stakes aren’t that high when we are talking about simply doing routine tasks for our jobs or businesses, but the fact remains that it will take you longer to develop proficiency if you are constantly switching between things. Think about the best way to train a new person in your organization. You give them one thing at a time to learn until they develop proficiency before adding something else onto their plate. 

Perhaps we are onto something there with training new people. Consider how that might shift the flow of your day if you focused on one thing at a time, rather than trying to do everything at once. 

There is also the potential for a lower-quality product being produced because you are just trying to get shit done when you are multitasking. The added pressure of deadlines looms and you just want to be done with something rather than be late.

Focusing on one thing at a time will improve your skill or talent incredibly fast. It also shortens the time it takes to complete a multitude of tasks. My suggestion is to get good at single-tasking and look for ways to collapse time.

Single-tasking

“The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.” –Mozart

There are a few different tactics you can use to get better at single-tasking. The Eisenhower Matrix, applying the principles of Parkinson’s Law, and Stacking your work are the tools I would recommend. Let’s unpack each of these tools.

Eisenhower Matrix

The Eisenhower Matrix was created from a quote by President Eisenhower while he was in office: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” The matrix is made up of 4 squares and two axes. On one axis you have Urgency and on the other you have Important. It is a tool helpful for deciding what items you need to give your attention to.

Eisenhower MatrixUrgentNot Urgent
Important1: Crying babies, Kitchen fire, Critical tasks2: Exercise, Jobs, Strategic Planning
Not Important3: Interruptions, Distractions, Non-Critical tasks4: Time wasters, Trivial Tasks, Busy work
Eisenhower Matrix
  1. Important/Urgent quadrant tasks are done immediately and personally, e.g. crises, deadlines, and problems
  2. Important/Not Urgent quadrant tasks get an end date and are done personally,e.g. relationships, planning, recreation
  3. Unimportant/Urgent quadrant tasks are delegated, e.g. interruptions, meetings, and activities
  4. Unimportant/Not Urgent quadrant tasks are dropped,e.g. time wasters, pleasant activities, trivia

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that Supply will always rise to meet Demand. Said another way, work will always complicate itself to fit the available time. To put this in perspective, think about how long you think a job will take to complete it and 9 times out of 10 it will take the entire time. A meeting scheduled for 1 hour will rarely take less time, project work will rarely be completed early and most times it takes longer than you think, and if you are given 3 months to complete a task you will often wait until the last minute to start.

When you understand this truth about how we operate in the world, you can start collapsing time for yourself. Ask yourself what would it take to shave 50% off your allotted meeting times. Or How can we complete this task now rather than waiting to complete it? 

The things that you get done now, will be completed now, why wait to get something done? Especially if it falls into quadrant #1 in the Eisenhower matrix. Get the urgent and important things done now and this will allow you to focus more on the non-urgent/important tasks with more ease. You can also think about how the work you are doing now can be repurposed later on which can save you time in the long run.

Stacking Work

It is a misconception that we have to start from zero with each new project, task, or initiative handed to us. We have a long history of completed tasks and projects that we can draw from, whether we led the work or not. Looking for ways to repurpose our work into multiple avenues will save you a lot of time and energy on the backend. It also creates a lot of consistency in how you handle your work.

Stack your work is simply finding things that complement each other so you don’t have to be doing a lot of different things but rather one thing used in a bunch of different ways. When we free up time, we free up our minds. When we free up our minds we don’t feel like we need to be chasing two or more things at once. 

We are all fighting a war within ourselves to be able to become who we want to be. Don’t sacrifice your efforts with the false mindset that you can do it all at the same time. As Swanson-sensei stated earlier, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

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