Multitasking as Juggling
I frequently come across a sentence like this in the requirements for a job: “Ability to juggle multiple projects”. Sometimes the word “tasks” or “priorities” is used instead of “projects” but the essence is the same. When I first saw that line I thought juggling was an appropriate metaphor for modern knowledge work. Then I actually learned to juggle. Now when I see that line I think “Whoever wrote this must not be a juggler”.
To be clear, this isn’t another rant about how multitasking is bad and how it’s actually killing our productivity. There are plenty of those out there. I want to point out how juggling might not be a good metaphor for working on multiple things at the same time.
Let’s think about this for a second. Presumably the juggling balls are the projects, and throwing them back up as they fall is keeping multiple projects going. But consider what happens to the balls in an actual juggling session. The session ends in one of two ways: either you literally drop the ball(s), or you want to stop and put the balls back in a box, sack, or wherever they are stored. When all is said and done, the balls traced circles in the air for a while and then went back to where they came from. Is that the outcome you want for your projects: either failure or, at best, no progress?
Cooking dishes at a restaurant might be a better analogy for multiple simultaneous projects in knowledge work. You have multiple customers ordering dishes. You can’t focus solely on one until it’s done before starting the others, since each customer will only wait so long before getting impatient. So you have to interleave things. Dump the noodles in the boiling water, put the meat on the grill, and start throwing together the salad while they cook. And you ultimately have to deliver a dish at a certain level of quality lest the customer send the food back or complain to your manager.