Slow-motion multitasking

Resevoir Dogs Slow-Motion Multitasking Walking

The Gif above is the famous slow-motion walking scene that opens Reservoir Dogs.

To me, this is the single most memorable and seminal moment in a classic movie. The combination of the change of pace allied to the background music is in such contrast to the speed of movement, action, dialogue throughout the whole movie after that point.

This scene comes to mind as an example of both slow-motion and a shift to a different style and way of storytelling.

As I write, I sit quietly in my apartment writing for the morning in the middle of a very active month of November and I find myself considering the power of what Tim Harford (author of the Undercover Economist and an FT contributor) calls “slow-motion multitasking”. Today I’ll muse on the power of this concept.

Towards the beginning of my active November, I picked up a copy of BA’s Business Life magazine and saw an article by Tim Harford, in which he referred to Kierkegaard talking about “intellectual crop rotation” and then “slow-motion multitasking”.

To me, there are two keys to this. First, multitasking, second slow-motion. If we are constantly jumping from one thing to the next, there is ample evidence that this has high cognitive cost. However, if instead, we move consciously and slowly to and between different tasks, ideas, practices, then I believe this can boost both creativity and productivity.

I do, indeed, suffer often from the cognitive cost of rapid multitasking, yet I am aware and conscious of this and hence increasingly have designed my life to allow “intellectual crop rotation” and “slow-motion multitasking”.

So, I’ll first use my diary as an example of intellectual crop rotation, then talk about slow-motion in multitasking, with learnings from Tim Harford.

Let’s begin with a look at my diary for the last three weeks, selecting a few items in chronological order:

  • Meeting a senior leader in the UK railway industry for a pint of real ale and to learn about changes in organisational cultures in that sector.
  • Video call to the USA to talk about mentoring founders of colour for an innovative and purpose-driven investment fund.
  • Attending an event for a programme to develop social enterprise entrepreneurs and being particularly inspired by learning from and about a founder leading a business aimed at ending “period poverty”, then the next evening attending an event for ICAS CAs aimed at group career mentoring,
  • Flying to Dublin (and picking up Tim Harford’s article) and then a weekend at Kilkenomics with a widely eclectic group of friends from Boston, LA, Trinidad, Cayman, all the while learning from economists of wildly different backgrounds and views
  • Going to the RSA for an Improv session aimed at new ways of learning for their Coaching Network
  • Attending the Meaning Conference in Brighton among 500 others looking at both meaning and purpose in business.
  • Co-leading a two-day retreat as the first pebble in the pond of creating a community of Beautiful Leaders and Makers, including transformational leadership programmes
  • Back in London for one day and seeing Florence and the Machine in concert, adding to that experience by taking a guest who had never attended a concert in their life to that point.
  • Flying the next day up to Glasgow and going to a wonderful awards event, with sensory overload way beyond the concert the night before due to it being held in the noisiest (industrial chic!) venue I’ve ever been to.
  • In contrast to that, spending the weekend after that doing very little indeed other than woodland walks and sitting by the fire in the Aberdeenshire countryside.
  • Heading from Aberdeenshire to Edinburgh to see my oldest son graduate from his Master’s degree.

That was my last three weeks. Today I have planned a morning to write, then calls this afternoon to Cayman clients then off to an event for GlobalScot to hear the latest news on an integrated brand conversation for Scotland. Tomorrow I again have taken the morning to write, then a client call to Canada, a train to a city outside London for a first face to face meeting with a new client, then back to London and the sleeper train to Glasgow. When I wake up on that train in Glasgow, I’ll lead a full day client facilitation then take a late flight back to London. That all takes me to the end of the month, finishing with meeting someone on Friday evening who has piqued my curiosity.

As I sense you can tell from that diary recap, I love listening, learning, sharing, supporting in so many ways, and in writing everything down it really does give me pause to consider the level to which I do consciously take time to “crop rotate”.

I was really taken by the thinking of  Tim Harford around this in that article. In addition to his books, after reading that article, I went to his site, where Tim writes often and eclectically. Similar to the in-flight magazine article I read, he wrote: “Did your holiday make you more creative?“, in which he noted:

“…variety feeds creativity.

Exhibit A: David Bowie. In the build-up to his trilogy of Berlin-based albums, Bowie had collaborated with John Lennon, starred in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth — and worked inconclusively on its soundtrack — lived in Geneva, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and drafted an autobiography. In Berlin, he alternated his own albums with producing and writing for Iggy Pop.

Exhibit B: Michael Crichton. Originally a doctor, in the 1970s and 1980s he wrote novels and directed a mid-budget thriller, Westworld, but also wrote non-fiction books about art, medicine and computer programming. The fruits of all this variety? In 1995 Crichton had achieved the scarcely believable feat of creating the world’s best-selling book (The Lost World), television show (ER) and film (Congo); in 1996 he did it again (Airframe, ER and Twister). I haven’t even mentioned Jurassic Park.

If those examples seem a little middlebrow, Exhibit C is Charles Darwin. He rotated between projects over the course of decades. His article “Biographical Sketch of an Infant”, inspired by his baby son, was published in time for William’s 38th birthday. On the Origin of Species was legendarily long in the making, in part because Darwin simultaneously spent nearly 20 years working on creepers and insectivorous plants. His book on earthworms took 44 years to come to fruition. All these projects were completed in parallel.”

I love each of these examples, with Darwin being the most powerful for me. He took decades for each of these key pieces of work, a glacial pace of intellectual crop rotation that has real power for me to consider for myself. I do sometimes take days, weeks or even months to develop ideas to fruition, yet rarely years and never decades. Hmm, thinking of the book I am writing that I have put on the ‘back burner’ for now. I sense I will evolve it (learning from other ideas and projects) and publish in 2020 so that one will have taken years rather than months!

Finally, to going slowly, and an example I use again and again on the power of the mind in switching between tasks.

When I was 21, I owned a classic sports car that was a little older than me. Put another way, it was a rusty and creaky Triumph Spitfire convertible. One day I picked up a friend at Edinburgh University to drive him to where we both lived outside the city. Coincidentally (hmm) as this memory comes to me, I note that the location was not one hundred yards away from where I took pictures with my son the other day to celebrate his master’s graduation. Anyway, we got in the car and I decided to show off by revving the engine and spinning the wheels as we took off, only as I did this the engine kept revving and the wheels didn’t move. Oops, I’d broken the car. I’d disintegrated the rear-wheel-drive differential. The car was literally undrivable.

Fast forward a few weeks. First, we’d towed the car all the way out to my father’s house in that village outside Edinburgh. Next, I’d gone to multiple salvage yards before finding a replacement rear differential at a budget affordable to me (ie very cheap!). So, here I was, with the car up on jacks, lying underneath it trying to disassemble the very dirty and rusty 22-year-old rear differential before then looking to replace it with the marginally newer (but at least functional) one.

This was a seemingly interminable task of not only trying to loosen bolts held fast, but also doing in a sequence that helped others loosen up in a way that would ultimately free up the entire assembly to be removed. It quickly felt like I’d taken on an impossible task for someone with very little mechanical experience.

Evening after evening I patiently laboured for hours with cleaning fluid, lubricants to loosen bolts, wrenches of all different kinds. It was hugely frustrating, yet one learning gradually emerged. Each evening I would get out from under the car, exhausted and mentally beaten down, wondering what on earth I could do to “unstick” this problem. It always seemed totally unsolvable, however, each new morning I would wake up and suddenly, miraculously it seemed, realise what the next step would be in the puzzle.

Though it ultimately took me about a week to complete the entire task, several times I went to bed feeling I would never find the answer, only to wake the next morning to have total clarity on the next step.

What created that clarity? Changing tasks. Each evening I would have spent all day under the car labouring steadily and slowly, but when I went into the house I’d shower, have dinner with family, chat, watch TV, perhaps go to my room and listen to music and practise with drumsticks and my drumming mat. Most of all, though, I’d sleep, solid as a rock with exhaustion. This then allowed the brain to go to work with a combination of deep and REM sleep, allowing waking up fresh with seemingly miraculous powers to solve the problems that were so intractable the night before!

I’ve always remembered this experience. Did I consciously choose to work on a frustrating motor mechanics issue as “intellectual crop rotation” or “slow-motion multitasking”? I did not.

I have, however, applied what I learned so many times, as well as using the story in coaching clients who have been “stuck” looking to solve a problem. Sometimes we can shift that sense of being stuck in a coaching meeting, and at the same time, I have often used that story as a tool to then ask them what they can do to “shift gears” then come back to their issue later.

Sometimes for clients that have meant going to walk on the beach (for Cayman clients in particular!), sometimes it has been as easy as leaving the phone in the office and going for a thirty-minute walk, slowly, consciously, focus on their body and their surroundings.

This brings me to the idea of slow-motion walking.

Regular readers know I am fascinated by Marina Abramovic (I encourage you to search on her name on this site, numerous articles reference her). She is one of the most conscious, aware, present humans I have ever come across. One of her practices is slow-motion walking.

In contrast to fast multi-tasking, she encourages such practices “to do one thing at a time, to do it truly profoundly”. So, not only is it valuable to practice intellectual crop rotation but also that when we do this with our slow-motion multitasking, we are present to each thing we are doing at any moment.

I leave you with a very short talk by Marina on this, and encourage you to find your own practice for doing one thing, slowly, with total focus:

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Also published on Medium.