I woke up with a to-do list over the weekend that looked something like this.

  • Make yogurt
  • Do laundry
  • Build strawberry tower
  • Make coffee
  • Do dishes

If I put the time each task required on it, it’d basically be a full day’s work.

  • Make yogurt: 12 hours
  • Do laundry: 2 hours
  • Build strawberry tower: 2 hours
  • Make coffee: 10 minutes
  • Do dishes: 1 hour

Yet all of it was effectively done in 2 1/2 hours. Why? Concurrent processing, parallel processing. Making yogurt realistically takes about 10 minutes to boil milk, cool it, add a starter, and dump in a low-heat warmer for 12 hours. Laundry takes 5 minutes to dump into the washer and then come back in 2 hours. Coffee takes 10 minutes and can happen at the same time as yogurt making. Doing the dishes takes 5 minutes to put the dishes in a dishwasher, add soap, and come back in an hour. The only task that required sustained effort was making a strawberry tower, which took the full two hours allotted to it, but could be started after all of the other chores were underway.

Oftentimes, people say they can multi-task. We know cognitively, this is exceptionally difficult to do unless you’re doing lots of right-brain work and almost no left-brain work, because the left brain is a serial processor that can effectively do one thing at a time. What people who are good at “multi-tasking” are good at is actually concurrent processing, where tasks can be started and moved into the background while other tasks are accomplished.

To be good at concurrent processing, you need to be good at understanding what tasks require sustained attention, and what tasks can operate on their own for a while. Line up all of your background tasks and front-load your day with them so that they kick off and run on their own, then serially process the remaining tasks based on your priorities. You’ll accomplish much more than you ordinarily would, and you’ll feel less stressed about the theoretical time that everything on your to-do list would take.

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