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We’re missing half of the saying. And that means everything.

Did you realise that when we point out that someone is a “jack of all trades” we’re only referring to the first half of a rhyme that has its beginnings way back in the year 1390?

Here’s how it reads:

Jack of all trades, master of none, though oftentimes better than master of one.

Feels like we’ve been using this little rhyme as an insult, when in its full form, it’s actually quite encouraging for those of us who are not hyper-focused on one thing in our careers and businesses.

And when you think about it, this takes a lot of pressure of us to always be specialising and niching down into just one thing. Because the reality is that our world – and our work – depends on more than just one skill.

I’ve been referred to as a “jack of all trades’ most of my life. And it was always a label given in a back-handed manner.
It reflected my ability to do a lot of things. But I was certainly not the world’s best at any of them.

As a state champion runner back when I was 13-17 years old I used to excel at several track events. 400m, 800m, 1500m, 100m hurdles and 400m hurdles. I wasn’t a strict sprinter, but nor was I a distance runner. Oh – and I was also a swimmer back then. And an ironman competitor. And piano player. And singer. And actor. And poet.

I think you get the gist. I was as ADHD then as I am now – though we didn’t have a diagnosis or definition for it back then. And no-one is more “Jack or All Trades” than someone with ADHD.

And while I wasn’t a specialist 400m runner or 100m hurdler, one year I won the state gold medals for 400m, 100m hurdles, 800m and got the silver medal for the 1500m. So I was clearly a master of at least a few of the things I did. And I got the lead role in the school musical that year just for the lolz.

The point is that even though I was a jack of all trades back then, I was still bloody good at enough things to be far more useful than the average single-focused student who only concentrated on studying, or football or the opposite sex.

This is the millennium of multitasking.

I know that multitasking has been getting a bad rap for a while now. Mostly from those (men) who don’t do it well. But perhaps we’re mistaking multitasking for context-switching. Let me explain.

Context switching involves rapidly switching between tasks, often interrupting the flow of work and requiring mental effort to refocus. It can lead to decreased productivity and increased errors.

Multitasking, on the other hand, involves handling multiple tasks simultaneously.

Multitasking is actually an amazing skill to have.

And for some, it’s something of a superpower.

But very few people are good at context-switching. And those who appear to be good at it, probably aren’t actually good at multitasking.

The reality is that as we come to the end of 2023, we are multitasking more than ever. The era of having one job for 30 years where you did the same thing over and over again has passed.

Even back when I was doing all that sport and arts and study I may have multitasked well, but I wasn’t wildly context-switching. It’s not like I was was getting pulled out of the pool halfway through a lap of backstroke and being told to start practicing Luck Be A Lady from Guys & Dolls in the change rooms.

When I was at track training, I was training on running. When I was in the pool, I was swimming. And when I was in my room at night I was doing my homework.

There was a time and place for all the things I did. And our workplaces and businesses should be more like that.

But this isn’t the case for everybody.

You won’t even be a jack of all trades if you keep context-switching.

I work with a particularly talented executive assistant. Her ability to just know off the top of her head where people are, how things work, when people are available and what the password is for that TV in that room is – well it’s remarkable.

She also has a rare ability to context switch through the day.

But that’s her job.

It’s not to work on a project from start to finish.

It’s not to design a website from scratch.

It’s not to write a 110 page annual report.

It’s literally to jump from small task to small task and be interrupted multiple times as she’s doing those small tasks.

I’m going to take a bet that your job is not like that.

And the worst thing that could happen to you while you’re focused on a big task is for someone to interrupt you midway through. Why?

Because it’ll take you nearly 20 minutes to get back to full speed and full focus on what you were originally doing. Just three interruptions in a day and you’ve spent at least an hour simply getting back to where you were.

Now consider that every email that drops into your inbox is doing the same thing. And you can see why it feels like some days you’re getting nothing done but “busywork.”

What is busywork?

I’m busy all the time. So why is nothing getting done?

One email can upend your whole day.

That’s certainly the case in my life.

Just one email with the word “urgent” in it can rip you so far away from that task you’ve been working on all morning and stop you from returning to it.

You get so busy working on the urgent thing that two days later you remember what you were supposed to be working on and can’t believe that you were so easily side-tracked.

But what if everything that lands in your inbox is urgent?

It’s easy for someone to rattle off some platitude like, “if everything is urgent, then nothing is urgent.” But that’s not helpful when you’re sitting on 13 urgent tasks and a big project you’re supposed to be also working on.

This kind of email-induced urgency creates what I like to call “busywork.”

It’s the kind of little side-track things that get you all busy fighting fires and making no progress on anything – but at least you look busy doing it and have an excuse for not working on the big stuff.

The trouble with busywork is that you’ll get no credit for doing it. Because it’s not really what you’re meant to be doing – even if you keep getting dragged into it.

So how do you manage to stay on track at work when you’re a true Jack of All Trades and keep getting steered into all that busywork?

I’ve got a little graphic that I’ve linked here that might help out a bit.

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