In Part 14, we looked at the potential for massively increasing our bandwidth by creating “personal productivity networks.” These networks are made up of packets of work that move between “nodes” where some kind of intelligence is applied, whether human or software-based.
But what does it look like to operate such a network in our day to day work?
Through multithreading, a term borrowed from modern computing. While multitasking is switching rapidly between tasks, and is absolutely not a good idea, multithreading is switching rapidly between projects, and is essential. Principle #6 is: Multithread projects to make progress on many fronts simultaneously.
#6 Multithread projects to make progress on many fronts simultaneously
To understand the importance of project multithreading, consider a few features of digital projects:
- They often encounter roadblocks or delays due to unforeseen events
- They often lead to impasses or blind alleys, as certain approaches are found to not work
- They are often highly collaborative, requiring communication loops
- They often require feedback or testing, which also takes time
While the actual production of knowledge work products is extremely fast, the necessary learning, discovery, and testing take longer than ever. This means that there are often sizeable gaps in digital projects, as we wait for someone to get back to us, for a meeting to happen, or for something to happen in the physical world.
This normally couldn’t be helped, except for another feature of digital projects: they are easy to switch to and away from, because it’s all on the computer. Digital technology has dramatically lowered many of the costs that once made switching focus so prohibitively expensive:
- cost of materials (digital assets can be instantaneously created or destroyed for free)
- storage costs (which continue to fall dramatically every year)
- transmission costs (just attach something to an email and send)
- cost of changing locations (just shut your computer and open it elsewhere)
- reproduction costs (just copy and paste)
Small bits of time that in the past wouldn’t have been of much use have become available for meaningful progress on virtually any other project. For this reason, the carrying capacity for how many projects a single person can maintain has spiked, from a handful to between 50-100, as David Allen has documented in his work with GTD.
Such multi-project capacity is increasingly not only feasible, it is essential.
Opportunities in the modern economy tend to be non-linear – the one in one hundred that really takes off produces more returns than the other 99. They also tend to be asymmetric – the downsides of failing are ever smaller, while the upsides of winning are ever greater. It starts to become imperative that we have many, many balls in the air, because we simply can’t predict when and where we’ll hit it big. And we only need to hit it big once.
One way to think of this is that we each have a personal surface area, for both opportunities and risks (this is captured in the term exposure, which can be positive or negative). The temptation when things are feeling uncertain and overwhelming is to contract the surface area – to reduce the number of commitments, projects, and responsibilities we’re managing. But this also reduces the surface area for opportunities. There are fewer ways to win, and fewer ways to benefit from the unexpected upsides that are so often part of online work.
Instead, we can expand our surface area, by drawing on more diverse sources of inspiration, cultivating more interesting projects and challenges, and developing a larger mix of colleagues and collaborators. By opening our projects up to our network, we have the potential to accomplish vastly more than we could ever do on our own, and much faster too.
For example, I often talk to people considering starting a blog (or YouTube channel, or website, or Etsy storefront). They are often waiting for everything to be “ready,” which often turns into a years-long delay. The longer they wait, the higher their standards become, because they have to justify all the time they spent waiting.
I’ve found that by regularly publishing blog posts on any topic that interests me, with no overarching strategy or philosophy, I vastly increase the “surface area” of opportunities available to me. People from different professions or industries connect with me over the posts they find interesting. The diversity of opportunities that come from these intersections is stunning: everything from new collaborations, to joint research, to introductions, to consulting gigs, to new customers.
Each one of my blog posts is a node in my network, offering a little bit of intelligence to anyone who reads it. They send a regular stream of payoffs back to me as readers randomly connect new lessons to old problems, spark flashes of inspiration, and bring me interesting new insights and examples.
Similarly, having multiple projects going at once, each at a different stage, they start to pay off at regular intervals. You get “free-ish” background gains as these projects interact with more people in more contexts.
If you think about it, you have zero opportunity to be strategic about the way you work until you have way more on your plate than you could ever complete. Until then, it’s just a matter of completing Task A, followed by Task B, and then Task C, etc. Once you have to choose what to do, you are able to kill two birds with one stone, postpone one thing while advancing another, outsource some tasks while parallelizing others, upscope and downscope, and use other forms of leverage.
What you accomplish can only become more than the sum of its parts if you’re exercising agency in choosing the parts, and their sequence. As the number of options for action increases, the potential combinations explode exponentially, as each task links to (and potentially enables) many other tasks.
Receiving a steady stream of payoffs is essential in creative work, where the success of any given project is so unpredictable. By always having another project to turn to when we get stuck, we can prevent temporary setbacks from becoming crushing defeats.
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