The long queue at airport security snaked its way through endless cattle races. Travellers mindlessly shuffled forwards. Bored. Impatient. Stressed. Resigned.
The complainers complained. Adding to the misery of all those around them.
The braggarts boasted. Status tiers. Lounge access. Global entry. Fast track. Pining for the conferred recognition of an upgrade. Desperately seeking the envy of their audience. Imagining being imagined. The warm inner glow of the malignant narcissist.
Parents attempted to mollify or entertain young children. A tough gig. A self-inflicted challenge.
Those too old, too fat, or too disabled to line up whizzed by in chauffeur-driven wheelchairs and golf carts. Skipping the queue. One of the rare occasions where frailty was an asset.
As I neared the front of the queue at the security checkpoint, I was fascinated by the people watching.
A logical workflow that may once have made perfect sense on a process map.
Place bags on the conveyer belt, one at a time.
Walk through the metal detector.
Collect bags, one at a time.
Have a nice flight.
Bags and passengers filing through the control point sequentially. First in, first out.
Then came the security theatre. Fear. Irrationality. Politics. Optics.
That once logical workflow corrupted by compromise and change. Boredom and human nature. The bruising experience of carefully planned theory colliding with the hot mess of reality.
Grab a tray.
Fumble with zips and fasteners, attempting to extract liquids and devices from luggage.
Grab another tray.
Empty pockets. Remove belts. Remove coats. Remove shoes.
Place bags on the conveyor belt, one at a time.
Walk through metal detector. Beep. Please step aside. Scan with a magic wand.
Meanwhile, two or three other travellers have passed through the checkpoint.
Walk through metal detector. Beep. Frisked and molested by a bully in a cheap uniform. The sort of personal attention that would see you reported to HR in any professional workplace.
Meanwhile, more travellers have passed through the checkpoint.
Random scan for bomb residue. Culinary Dadsasters and nappygeddon explosions appear not to count.
Meanwhile, yet more travellers have passed through the checkpoint.
The sequence of people no longer bears any resemblance to the sequence of bags and trays. Ordered logical flow degenerating into writhing mass of humanity.
The punters frantically attempt to recover possessions before they are lost or stolen by random opportunists. Get dressed. Tie shoes. Repack liquids and screens into overfull carry-on bags.
All the while even more people and bags funnel through the checkpoint. Jostling and shoving.
The whole thing made for an awful customer experience. Convoluted. Disjointed. Slow. High friction. Low function. Now inefficient by design, rather than designed to be efficient.
Was it fit for purpose? Perhaps. Today few of the planes which fall from the sky are attributed to terrorism. Instead, pilot error or mechanical fault are usually blamed. Rarely does root cause analysis step back to identify systemic underly causes like corporate cost-cutting and misaligned incentives.
But is that correlation or causation? Impossible to say without knowing how many weapons and bombs the security checks uncover. A pure numbers game. Low-probability. High-impact.
Or was it instead a grand global conspiracy to sell more disposable bottles of water? Probably not.
Watching the security screening process unfold made me think about bandwidth.
Serial flows which appear simple and elegant when viewed in isolation, yet inefficient in the aggregate. The queue for an amusement park ride. Start at the end, and advance to the beginning.
Parallel flows appear messy and complicated. When done well, they are beautifully coordinated like an orchestra or professional kitchen. When done badly, they more closely resemble anarchy. A rugby maul, interpretive jazz, or discount department store Boxing Day sales. Individually each task appears to be a disjointed stop-start mixture of activity and waiting. But collectively, they complete in less time than performing the same tasks end-to-end in isolation.
There is a long-running debate about multitasking. Does it really exist?
Is it better to try to perform many activities at once, while achieving satisfactory outcomes?
Or is it more productive to focus on one task at a time, and complete them in sequence?
I suspect the answer probably lies somewhere in-between the two extremes.
Consider a typical day in the life of a parent with school-aged children. Do a load of laundry, while baking a birthday cake, all while supervising music practice and homework.
If these tasks were completed in sequence, they would take many hours.
Doing them in parallel, and they can be knocked over in a fraction of the time.
Put the dirty clothes in the washing machine, and come back in a couple of hours.
Mix the ingredients for the cake, pop it in the oven, and return in half an hour.
Have the kid rehearse their music while loading the washer and stirring the cake mix.
Then focus on the homework while the washing machine washes and the oven bakes.
By the time the laundry is clean, all the other tasks have also been completed.
Was that really doing many things at once?
Or was it actually breaking each task down into individual steps, ordering all the steps from all the tasks in a logical sequence, then serially completing them one by one?
I’d say the latter.
But here is the thing: jumping from one thing to the next incurs a toll in terms of context switching.
Changing from laundry mode to baking mode to tutor mode and back again.
Each context switch has a cost. Friction. A tax on productivity.
For physical activities, this might involve stretching or warming up muscles to avoid injury.
For intellectual tasks, there is a mental equivalent. Recalling where you’re up to. Figuring out what happens next.
Just as doing tasks end-to-end serially was inefficient, trying to do too many things at once is also inefficient. The law of diminishing returns quickly kicks in.
Before long, the cost of additional context switches outweigh the benefit of attempting to perform another task in parallel.
Instead of completing the aggregate of all the tasks more quickly, the time taken blows out. We start tripping over ourselves, getting in our own way by taking too much on and becoming too busy.
Lots of activity, but little tangible output.
Self-harm by enthusiasm.
Coming back to the airport security example, having already sacrificed the individual customer experience for aggregate throughput, the benefits of doing things in parallel may then be sacrificed by attempting to funnel too many customers through the checkpoint at the same time. Resulting in uncoordinated chaos, which in turn slows the whole process down.
There is an art to figuring out the sweet spot. How many concurrent tasks can be completed in parallel before “just enough” becomes too much? A combination of ambition. Confidence. Experience. Trial and error. Refinement.
That optimal mix changes with our age and circumstance.
Twenty years ago, I could juggle far more concurrent tasks than I can today.
Today, I achieve my desired outcomes far faster than I did twenty years ago.
A case study in the old cliché “less haste, more speed”.
Part efficiency. Working smarter not harder.
Part prioritisation. Learning to triage noise and distraction from things that will make a difference.
Part experience. Recognising being busy is not the same as being productive.
Part realisation. Mental bandwidth is a scarce precious commodity. I’m only good for a handful of important decisions and useful thinking hours each day.
Combine all four, and task selection changes from “and and and” to “or or or”.
Which raises a troubling question: where to dedicate those productive thinking hours?
At a demanding job? Interesting side projects? Education and self-improvement?
When an employee’s interests are aligned to those of their employer then this isn’t a difficult decision. Their profession is their passion. They’d invest their precious time doing much the same type of activities whether they were getting paid or not. Typical of athletes. Creatives. Programmers. Writers.
Earn a living AND indulge an interest AND enhance skills.
The greater the divide between those interests, the harder that time allocation decision becomes.
Earn a living OR indulge an interest OR enhance skills.
This isn’t to say it is impossible to do some elements of each, only that there is a prioritisation aspect.
If a person is not actively and consciously setting their own priorities, they are subconsciously accepting the prioritisation of choices made by others. And suffering the consequences. Their employer. Their spouse. Their peer group.
An interesting aspect of those parallel activities is each will have a different cadence and timescale.
Successful investing involves some initial activity and decision-making, followed by a bit of repetition, and a lot of patience as returns compound over time. Planting money trees early on, then waiting for them to grow. Glacially slow in the beginning, like the airport security queue. Snowballing later, like the aeroplane hurtling down the runway destined for a fabulous destination.
Once we’ve put the groundwork in place, throughout those subsequent compounding years we can focus on other activities. Maximising the marketable value of our time. Enjoying our stamina, fitness, and mobility while we can. Friendships and family.
Get the sequencing wrong, and our money trees will be smaller. Stunted. Less time to grow.
The same goes for education. A university degree or apprenticeship should translate into a lifetime of above-average earnings. Therefore it is preferable to figure that out closer to the beginning of a career than the end of one.
The lesson here is to ensure we don’t view things myopically. Thinking short term. Doing only one thing at a time.
Consider a financially immature person, who focuses on working to pay off the mortgage. Then worries about funding their retirement once that is done. Then tries to squeeze living the good life into that all too brief retirement window during which they are both physically and financially able.
A sequence of tasks completed serially. End-to-end. In isolation. Collectively taking much longer than they need to as a result.
This is the functional equivalent of those travellers who fail to plan. Arriving late. Packing liquids at the bottom of their bags. Wearing steel-cap boots when they know they will be going through metal detectors.
In both cases achieving a more optimal outcome would involve a small bit of upfront planning and prioritisation.
Identifying the tasks and the steps involved to complete each one.
Organising steps, from across all those desired outcomes, into a sensible running order.
Executing each one in sensible sequence.
It isn’t hard. But does require setting aside the time to do the thinking upfront, and then making the effort to put that thinking into practice.