I multi-task frequently.
I run a modeling business, which requires many hats. In addition to modeling, I’ve also had to learn to be a marketer, a blogger, a social media manager, a booking agency, and something like a professional email answerer. If my business needs it, I have to make it happen. On top of that, I’m usually juggling several projects. I write; I dabble in music and a half-dozen other smaller hobbies.
While I embrace it because I like to be involved in lots of things, multi-tasking has some pitfalls. Okay—if I’m being honest, it has a lot of pitfalls.
I’m in the process of starting another big project: I’m finally working on my fiction writing again in the form of a brand new novel. And although I’m really excited (I’ve never written a novel before!), it also means I’m running across all of the multi-tasking problems that crop up with the start of a new project. These are the ones that have historically given me the most trouble, and how I’m solving them this time around.
Knowing My Limits in the Kitchen
I like to think of my brain as a stove top, with the pots on the various burners as different projects. If I only have one pot going, it’s easier to cook well—I can give it my full attention. Of course, there are empty burners, and I can fit more than one pot on the stove at the same time. Sometimes I can fit three or four, if they aren’t too large or the dish I’m cooking isn’t too complicated. But eventually I run out of attention or burner space, and something doesn’t get cooked properly. Pots boil over; food gets burned to a crisp.
People have different numbers of projects they can juggle, or numbers of pots they can watch at the same time. Four is about my max. Otherwise I get stuck, distracted, or overwhelmed, and things get set on fire. And yet, I'll still try to fit too many things on my stovetop before I realize my mistake. I tend to fill up my burners to their maximum capacity. This is fine for a while, but if anything else happens, I have to either take a pot off the stove or ruin a dish.
Now I try to leave a free burner open at all times, and don’t start a new project until I have a burner available for it. Yes, it means doing less, and this is tough to accept. It meant starting this novel much later than I would have liked. But that way if something important comes up, I always have somewhere to put it.
Multi-tasking is less “doing multiple things simultaneously,” and more “regularly switching between things to keep them going.” No matter what I do, context switching between projects always takes up time that I can’t get back. I can’t just put down one project and pick up the next one seamlessly. I need time to change over from one idea to the next. This means that to a very real extent, working on more than one project wastes a certain amount of time.
Interestingly, this seems worse between projects that are similar. I’ve been noticing recently that it’s harder to switch between a blog post and a novel—both writing tasks--than it is between either and modeling. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems consistently true.
But I can minimize context switching by having a system. Rather than trying to ignore the cost of switching or rushing through it, now I acknowledge it. I specifically plan to take a break between projects. I drink a cup of tea, take a nap, or just meditate for a few minutes to clear my mind. These small rituals feel like wasted time if I don’t organize them. But if I plan for them, I feel like I’m making the best use of my time.
The More I Do, the More I Suck
The common thread here is, I can’t do everything. I certainly can’t do as much as I intuitively want to. If I'm dividing my attention too much, things WILL fall through the cracks. And I don’t magically get more time by doing more things. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the more projects I take on, the more I have to compromise.
The best thing I’ve found is to consciously choose what I'm not going to do well. It has to be something, and otherwise, circumstances tend to choose for me. Then I’m rarely happy with the results. It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day to-do’s and ignore large, long-term projects. But when I'm putting out fires instead of working on the bigger picture, I tend to feel very unfulfilled.
For example, most models respond to emails and social media queries practically instantaneously. I, on the other hand, am lucky to have a 48-hour email turn-around time. I know this has lost me more than a few gigs, but I still choose to do it. The extra uninterrupted time is worth it for me to batch emails and work on writing instead. I’m not willing to trade my writing time for those extra gigs.
* * *
Although multi-tasking has a lot of detriments, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The strength of multi-tasking is in having lots of vastly different experiences. Combining these experiences helps me make each project better. I certainly wouldn’t have as much to write about if I didn’t model. It goes both ways, too: I think I’ve realized more about modeling by writing a blog about it than I have by modeling professionally for the last six years. I’m sure the same principles will hold for future projects as well, so I need to make sure I keep a burner open and try not to do everything.