Multi-Tasking is an Illusion

There is no such thing as true multi-tasking for humans, so how do computers manage it? Your MacBook may look like it’s doing several things at once but in truth it’s just spending small amounts of time working on each task individually, and quickly switching between tasks until all tasks are completed. If your computer has more than one processor then it can run two tasks at once, but that’s akin to a human with two brains… which unfortunately we do not have…. yet. Even so, a multiprocessor computer still processes more tasks concurrently than the number of processors it contains.

Slow down time and observe your macbook’s processes and you’ll see that it’s focusing intensely on one task at a time, this is how a Five Minute Master operates. The 5MM works on many projects at the same time, how can one person be working on so many disparate projects at simultaneously? They aren’t, they are just doing the same thing your Macbook is doing, quickly switching tasks and intensely concentrating on each one individually for a short period of time.

Stay stimulated — switch task

Human love novelty, that is why smart phones rule our lives and sap all of our attention. This is how my morning smart phone routine used to go:

  • Wake up
  • Check notifications (SMS/Phone Calls)
  • Check email (7 accounts)
  • Check Facebook Messenger
  • Check Instagram
  • Check Whatsapp
  • Check YouTube
  • Check Facebook Messenger again
  • Roll out of bed

What do I “check” all of these apps for? Something new and novel like a message from somebody or a new video, which in turn gives me a shot of dopamine. The uncertainty of whether or not each app contains a new message or video only adds to the addictive nature of the dopamine chase, these are called ‘intermittent variable rewards’. Tristan Harris, former Design Ethicist at Google, famously compared the modern smart phone to a slot machine. Would you want to see highly addictive money absorbing slot machines in everyone’s hands?

“But here’s the unfortunate truth — several billion people have a slot machine their pocket” — Tristan Harris

Understanding this, I repurposed my habits to gain an extra 2 hours of productivity every day, broken down into 24 individual 5 minute tasks all on different projects, skills, and practices. You can do this too, It is a way of utilizing the novelty wiring in our brains to be productive rather than waste time. Enjoy doing something? Here’s 5 minutes to do it. Don’t enjoy a task? Don’t worry, you’ll be switching in 5 minutes. All of these tasks will use different parts of your brain and your 2 hours of work flies by.

Each task you undertake gives you the potential of finding a reward. You could learn something new when reading a book you’ve been speed reading for the past few days, or make a significant breakthrough on a video project you’ve been chipping away at for weeks. Most tasks wont give you that reward every day but that’s just the nature of work, some things have to be worked on for several days or weeks before you get anything back, but at least you’re doing the work.

If you don’t put the time in to exercise your mind you’ll end up just spending that time and attention on your smart phone. When I look back over the past decade I have so many memories of just staring at my phone, wasting time. Time flies when you are wasting time, but also when you are making the most of your time. This is the nature of life, time passes regardless of how you fill it.

Your day is made up of 300 5 minute blocks, you should spend around 100 of those asleep, another 100 make up the average working day, plus a further 20 blocks on average getting to and from that job. That’s a conservatively estimated total of 220 blocks of time gone. You have 80 blocks left, how many of them are you going to spend on your phone?