Notwithstanding the fact that much of our culture still believes in the virtue of “multi-tasking,” it’s been proven that “multi-tasking” can actually be detrimental to productivity.
In fact, “multi-tasking” doesn’t really exist. When we “multi-task” we are really doing fast task switching, often at a significant cognitive costs.
It’s generally accepted that the best way to get into a flow state is to focus purely on one task for a duration of time. “Multi-tasking” or task-switching is the enemy of flow.
I’ve long preached the harms of multi-tasking, but recent experiences have caused me to soften my stance.
Nothing is absolute. In fact, in some contexts — and when set up with the right conditions — task switching can be effective, and we can even get into flow with it.
Introducing the Concept of “Controlled Task-Switching”
The other day, I shared a case study of a workout that created flow.
One of the features of that workout was that it involved two different movements, or “tasks” done for 4 rounds.
- 500-meter row
- 20 wall balls
Today I did another workout with two “tasks” done for 5 rounds:
- 5 hex bar reset deadlifts
- 6 dumbbell push press
In this workout, I performed both movements at loads that were moderate for me — i.e., not even close to my 5-rep max load.
On the surface, this workout differed from the first workout in important ways that would seem to prevent me from generating flow.
- it’s a strength-based workout, versus the cardio conditioning of the row/wall ball workout
- the movements required more cognitive capacity and attention
- weightlifting requires short rest breaks between each set
- there was no running clock or time limit
Yet, like with the row/wall ball workout, I was able to get into a flow with this workout — so much so that I did an extra 2 sets!
Both workouts are examples of what I call “controlled task-switching”.
What is Controlled Task-Switching?
Controlled task-switching is an intentional coupling of two different tasks that is designed to generate flow when that “superset” is repeated for several rounds.
As I reflected on both workouts, I came up with 7 factors that helped create flow when engaging in this type of “controlled task-switching.”
I’ve noticed when I have created this type of flow in my work, these factors are present. You can try them out in your workouts or your work and see how they work for you.
7 Elements to Create Flow With Controlled Task-Switching
(1) Limit the Number of “Tasks”
In both cases the number of movements, or “tasks” was limited to just two, and I switched between them for several rounds.
Although I did a high total number of reps of each movement over the course of my workout, each segment was a manageable “chunk” that didn’t create physical fatigue or cognitive overload.
The rhythm and flow built over the course of several rounds. That said, the deadlift workout took longer to get into flow because it had a higher cognitive load.
(2) Proximity: Do Both Tasks in the Same Defined Area
In both cases, I could do both “tasks” in the same location within the gym.
In the rower/wall ball workout I positioned the rower close to the wall where I would be doing the wall balls.
For the deadlift/push press workout I had the dumbbell for the push press on the deadlift platform.
This allowed me to switch between them without completely changing my location within the gym. I essentially set up a “station” so I could stay in one place as I switched between the two “tasks.”
(3) Clear Change in Physical Orientation Between Tasks
Even though I could stay in the same floor area for both tasks, I still had to move from one task to the other by changing my body position, orientation, and location.
In other words, I was not just doing 2 different movements in the same position, like a standing bicep curl and tricep extension, or alternating between two seated movements.
Changing between the tasks required me to get up and move — even if only a few inches away.
It might be a subtle nuance, but it’s an important one: ADHD brains crave novelty. The novelty triggers dopamine, which is why many people like to “multi-task” in the first place.
The change in physical orientation was a clear cue for my body and brain that I was switching to something else, creating that novelty factor.
(4) Distinct Tasks With a Common Thread
In both cases, there was a clear distinction between the moments that created variety. In addition, each movement in the pair used different equipment.
That said, the two movements shared some fundamental similarities that created a thread tying them together.
Rower and wall balls:
*Differences*: one is sitting and rowing (pulling) and one is standing, squatting and throwing a ball (pushing).
*Common Thread*: Rowing is essentially a squat movement while seated. It’s a hinge with knee flexion and driving through the feet.
Deadlifts and push press:
*Differences*: One is lifting (pulling) a bar with weights and one is pushing a dumbbell overhead.
*Common Thread*: Both are done standing. Both require a hinge, knee flexion, and drive. And both require a similar cadence of breathing: inhale to get the air, then exhale on the force of the drive. Reset and do it again.
(5) Each Task Has a Clear End Point
Each movement has a specified number of reps. This makes it clear when I’m done with each, at which point I move on to the other.
The specific metric means that one can’t bleed into the other.
This is where I often falter in my attempts to do controlled task-switching with creative work, where there is often no clear endpoint. Without a clear finish point, it’s easy for a task to bleed into the time for the other task, which kills the rhythm and flow.
(6) Visual Reminder of the Tasks
Each workout was a simple pair of movements with no variation in the metric scheme, making them easy to remember. Even though I could remember it, I didn’t leave it to my memory.
I wrote out the workout on a white board and had it in front of me the whole time.
If this sounds like overkill, keep in mind that the point wasn’t to remember it, but to remind me of what I was doing. Like many people with ADHD, I do best with visual reminders and cues.
Having the workout written out on a white board is like having the GPS on in the car, even when I know where I’m going and how to get there.
It give the nervous system a sense of security, facilitating attention and focus and keeping me from getting off track.
(7) Intentional Use of Transitions
In the row/wall ball workout, transitions had to be quick, so there wasn’t much risk of losing energy in them. The deadlift/push press workout was more challenging on that front: the need to rest between sets introduced a friction point that could bleed energy and kill flow.
To counter this, I used my transitions as a form of “active rest.”
At the start of the workout, I made dashes on my white board for each round. At the end of each set, I rubbed off a dash to keep track of where I was. Then I took a bite of a protein bar that I had set up in my “station,” I did a quick mobility drill, and I reset my video.
This occupied my attention enough to allow a physical and cognitive reset without losing focus or flow.
Incorporate Other Flow Elements
Keep in mind that many of the other elements discussed in parts one and two still apply. For example, a good playlist was essential to maintaining flow, especially in the more cognitively-demanding deadlift workout.