Multitasking, deep understanding, and comparisons


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This week: What multitasking feels like for the brain, a science-fiction legend advice on how to develop deep understanding, and a reframing suggestion for a healthier kind of comparison.


Multitasking is like playing with two children at once

Yesterday, I had a vivid experience of what being asked to multitask must feel like for our brain.

I was playing LEGOs with my son, who wanted me to play with an underwater thief minifig so he could capture me with his submarine.
Attracted by the noise, my daughter joined us, bringing a big cardboard box.
She pretended to be a cat, hid in the box, and wanted to be found.
(If you’ve never been around small children, this game might not make much sense, but trust me, it’s a crowd favorite, and they’ll play it for a really long time.)

To avoid fights, I ended up using one arm to move the LEGO minifig and the other to open the cardboard box, alternating sentences like “You’ll never catch me” with “Oh my! I wonder where the little kitty hid this time.”

Needless to say, neither of my children was impressed with my roleplaying, and the experience wasn’t at all enjoyable for me.


On building a deep understanding of things

When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart.

– William Gibson, Zero History


Compare how you spend your time, not the outcome it produces

As someone aspiring to run his own business, or at least establish a secondary income stream, I read a fair amount of articles from “people who made it.” In my case, those are established authors, people running learning sites, and bootstrappers. All that content can be a valuable source of inspiration but can just as easily degenerate into a source of self-loathing.

It’s natural to compare ourselves against both our peers and those we admire. However, it’s a comparison that is, for the most part, pointless.

Each person is unique. Each has a unique background and string of events that got them to where they are.
It might not be a case of apples against oranges, but it’s oranges against grapefruits to the very least.

The thing that gets me the most, for example, is receiving newsletters that start with “welcome to the n new subscribers who joined this week,” where n is a number greater than my entire list size.

Should it be surprising that someone with a platform 100x bigger than mine, working full-time on producing content, gets orders of magnitudes more new subscribers? Not at all.

I think there’s a better, fairer comparison game we can play and, most crucially, one on which we have a way higher degree of control on:

Compare how you spend your time against how you would like to spend your time.

When I shift my focus to that personal metric, I’m happy with what I see. On most days, I spend my time exactly the way I’d like to: With my family, reading, writing, and coding.

We only have limited control over the relative difference between pseudo-objective metrics, such as email list size, MRR, salary, and so on. The good news is that none of those really matter. Once your income is enough to cover your needs and allow for some savings, what drives quality of life is spending your days with the people you love while doing things that you find meaningful.

I said that was the good news. What about the bad one? The bad news is that knowing all this doesn’t make the desire for comparison go away.
Still, I hope you can find some solace in this framing approach. I know I do.


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Cover image by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash.

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