Start typing to search
Share Post:

Slow-Motion Multitasking: The Crop Rotation Theory

I once wrote a post about why multitasking is actually great, and how everyone else who criticizes it is wrong. That post didn’t go over well, probably because everyone else was right and I was wrong. Whoops.

Even though I was wrong, I was mostly wrong about what I was describing, not the underlying principle. I’ve since found a new analogy for what I was trying to say long ago.

Classic multitasking—as in, constant switching between tasks—is ineffective and in fact detrimental. You simply can’t focus on more than one thing at once, and you lose time each time you make a switch.

But multiple project management is different. That’s what this post is about: working on multiple projects in tandem: not at the exact same time, but in a rotating fashion.

“Kirkegaard called it crop rotation..”

The analogy I liked comes from Tim Harford, author of many books, podcaster of many series, and all-around busy guy. In an interview with Tyler Cowen, another busy person I respect and learn from regularly, Tim described his approach:

“I have a lot of projects on the go and switch between them. Kierkegaard called it crop rotation. You work on something, you put it to one side, and then you pick something else up. I gave a Ted talk on this. I called it slow-motion multitasking. I think it’s striking how many very successful people practice this and have these multiple projects on the go. They provide relief. When you’re stuck on something, you just do something else and don’t get stressed about it because you’ve got something else productive to do.”

So there you have two ways to describe it, both of which seem fairly apt for this way of work: crop rotation or slow-motion multitasking.

There might be some cost associated with this practice, but the cost is offset by a great benefit: different projects require different energy, and you can essentially “recharge” as you move between them.

Notice that it’s not just possible to work this way, it’s also better, at least for some of us. In Tim’s words: “When you’re stuck on something, you just do something else and don’t get stressed about it because you’ve got something else productive to do.”

For example, here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • I record my episodes for Side Hustle School two days a week. The podcast goes out every day, but by condensing my recording into two days, I’m able to free up brain space on other days. We recently crossed the 1,900 episode mark! 2,000 is on the horizon.
  • I try to write 1,000 words every day. Long ago I maintained this habit religiously, then it fell by the wayside as I got busy with other stuff. During the pandemic I started bringing it back.
  • I usually only write one book at a time, but I’m often outlining or thinking about other books. From time to time I revisit the notes and take stock. Writing The Money Tree, for example, was incredibly fun. I loved exploring a new format and genre, and it felt very different from my other books.

Those are a few constants. I try to not things get out of hand—there is, after all, a limited amount of time in the day—but I also work on other projects. Lately I’ve been into DeFi and new forms of money, especially a blockchain video game that’s both fun and profitable.

I’m also preparing to host a big event for friends and readers this summer after a two-year pandemic delay. These and other projects take time, which I try to schedule in and then rotate between.

Just Be Careful!

Crop rotation—or whatever you call it—is cool. But you have to be careful you don’t just end up in classic multitasking mode. To protect against bad habits, two things help:

1. Have a plan

Every day I spend a few minutes in my notetaking app and write a “Daily Plan,” which sounds more elaborate than it is. It takes five minutes max, often less. I make any notes about my schedule, decide on what I’ll do for fitness that day, and identify the three most important tasks. (Not having more than three is key.)

2. Maintain focus in dedicated blocks of time

Here’s where the Pomodoro method, or any variation, comes in handy.

In case you’re not familiar: Pomodoro is where you work for 25 minutes (or a time of your choosing, but not usually longer than an hour) before taking a short break. You then tackle your next work session, either on the same project or a different one.

I do this multiple times a day, every day. My version is done with Timeular, a physical tool that sits on my desk. The cube has different sides (because, you know, it’s a cube) and each side represents a project. When I turn it over, I work only on that project until my “shift” is up.

You can create your own version of this practice for free, using Google timers, the clock on your phone, or anything similar. The point is dedicated time to work on only one thing, before moving on.

It’s not multitasking, but it’s definitely not “doing the same thing all the time.”

Work on something, set it to the side, then work on something else. With order and a plan, you can accomplish anything. Or at least, you can accomplish many things.

What will you choose today?


Images: 1, 2