Over the past few weeks, one idea has surfaced again and again through podcasts, books, and articles I’ve read:
Multi-tasking (or having multiple priorities) is the key to failure. To succeed, you must identify one thing that takes precedence and accept mediocrity at everything else, so the prevailing wisdom goes.
This message has come up several times over the past few weeks from reading The ONE Thing by Gary Keller to a discussion with Angel List founder Naval Ravikant on the Spartan Up! podcast to an interview I listened to with Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism.
I think it’s worth separating out what I see as two different types of multi-tasking:
- Trying to do two different tasks at the same moment in time (like trying to watch TV and also listen to your friend tell a story).
- The multi-tasking we all do on a daily basis as we juggle the various roles we all play (team member, writer, husband, mother, father, etc).
It’s well documented that the former variation doesn’t work. You’ll get a much better return on investment by single-tasking – devoting all of your energy to one task at a time. Read Deep Work if you’re not convinced.
The second variation – juggling the many roles we all play on a daily basis – is where I tend to disagree with the prevailing wisdom.
I’ve been mulling this over in my head recently because it hits close to home. With a new baby in the house, I’m trying to be the best Dad possible. That and being an awesome husband are certainly a top priority. I’m also dedicated to excelling in my professional career at Automattic and building an awesome community at CrossFit Undeniable. That’s four priorities…am I doomed to mediocrity?
I don’t think so. Well, at least I hope not!
I believe it’s totally possible to be an awesome dad/husband, excel professionally, and have a side passion. We all have different roles we juggle – many at the same time.
When I think about how to be successful at this juggling act, three key pieces stick out.
First, segmented attention is the enemy.
The people we live with and work with on a daily basis deserve our full attention. When we give people segmented attention, piecemeal time, switching back and forth, the switching cost is higher than just the time involved. We end up damaging relationships.
– The ONE Thing
When you’re at work, be at work. When you’re at home, be at home. Issues arise when we don’t have clear boundaries between the two, and we live in a constant gray area.
Second, understand that balance is not the goal.
A lot of fuss is made over the topic of work/life balance. The phrase creates the mental model of a teeter totter tipping too far towards one side or the other.
In order to excel in an area of your life (professional, personal, etc), you have to dedicate energy to it – that’s a fact. Your energy is also a finite resource meaning that giving more to one area necessitates giving less to another. Work/life balance insinuates that every area of your life has to have an equal devotion of energy at all times, which is impossible.
Instead, understand that success ultimately requires extremes. There will be days when you have to devote most of your energy to the professional arena. On your vacation, devote all of your energy towards your family. That’s balance – juggling the extremes.
Third, understand that not everything matters equally.
Not everything matters equally, and success isn’t a game won by whoever does the most. Yet that is exactly how most play it on a daily basis.
– The ONE Thing
This third piece is even more relevant as I’m reading through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. AUTHOR introduces this concept of “Quadrant II Thinking.” If we plot out tasks that are Urgent vs. Not Urgent and Important vs. Not Important, we get the following:
We spend far too much of our effort on Quadrants I, III, and IV – stuff that we should either plan around or avoid at all costs. Quadrant II is the stuff that really matters, the stuff that makes a difference and pushes us forward in the areas we value.
Identify the actions that push you forward and ignore everything else.
Perhaps we’re splitting hairs with this idea of juggling various roles successfully. When someone says you must devote all of your energy to running a company if you want to do it successfully, maybe they mean you can still be an awesome partner/parent, but you must devote all of your “professional” energy to the company. I’m not so sure though.
This “one priority at the expense of others” idea has popped up again and again. I just don’t think it jives with how we live our lives. Life is inherently complex, and we all play a multitude of roles. With the right approach, I’m convinced that it’s completely possible to excel in all of them without going crazy.