two steps forward, one step back

I’ve got myself and others convinced that I’m a great multitasker. But many would argue that multitasking is actually a myth, and that it does more harm than good.

Even when I’m operating at my best, it frequently seems like I’ll take two steps forward and one step back. Whether that’s progress on two projects and stasis on one, or massive progress on one project and losing ground in another.

It’s easy to argue that if you make two steps forwards and one step back, that’s still progress! After all, +2 -1 = +1. And in theory, if you alternate which areas you’re advancing, you’ll rise the tide for all boats!

That logic seems sound, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Opportunity cost is routinely ignored by multitaskers (myself included). If you are committed to working on three projects, and you advance two while treading water on another, there is still a level of effort and attention (resources) paid to that third project.

Those resources sunk into third project, which was not progressed, could have gone into one of the other two projects, and further progressed them. Over time, that incremental improvement pays huge returns (think of it like investing).

But just as frequently as we discount opportunity cost, we fall prey to sunk cost fallacy. The more we invest into something, the harder it is for us to abandon it – despite the facts.

A great example of this is generic pharmaceutical manufacturers. In pharmaceuticals, drug manufacturers receive a 20-year patent, at which point generics can be sold on the market.

For the generic manufacturers, they will begin R&D to recreate the patented drug sometimes a decade or more prior to that patent expiring. They are incentivized to be first to market with the generic version of that drug, which gives them a tight window of opportunity with a ton of lead time.

Often, there are multiple generic manufacturers aiming to be first to market after a patent is up. Many years into R&D, it may become clear that they are behind a competitor and will not be first to market.

At this point, it is most wise for the company to cut its losses and immediately reallocate those resources to a different project. If they are not first to market, they will not recoup their investment, and a continued R&D spend is burned cash. But several years into R&D, it’s difficult to not want to see that initiative through.

If you’re working towards several goals, it’s worth considering whether the projects that are falling behind, or slowing down your other goals, are worthwhile.

You don’t have time for everything.¬†What’s important to you?


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