Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Layering: Multitasking That Actually Works

In a few short years, multitasking has gone from star child to black sheep in productivity pop culture. This is because the most common forms of multitasking require rapidly switching between similar tasks, which creates a sort of “flickering” effect in your brain. (Think of a connection gone bad… annoying at best, useless at worst.)

But sometimes multitasking really is the only way to fit in all of your priorities, and the benefits far out weigh any slight quality reduction. Of course, that’s if — and this is a big IF — you’re doing it the right way. I call this good kind of multitasking “layering.”

I define “layering” as strategically deciding to do tasks that require different “channels” of mental functioning such as visual, auditory, manual or language. As David Meyer, one of the world’s leading experts on multitasking, explains in this New York magazine article , “The only time multitasking does work efficiently is when multiple simple tasks operate on entirely separate channels.”Through my work with time coaching clients, I’ve seen that layering can have a dramatic positive impact on productivity in four oft-neglected areas: Physical Order, Eating & Exercise, Social Connection, and Mental Processing.

Try out these strategies for fitting in more through layering on complementary activities.

1. Layering w/ Physical Order

Desk clutter tends to increase in direct proportion to many people’s level of creative activity. Because cleaning your desk — or even emptying your office trash — almost never seems like a high priority, the piles rise, the garbage gets pushed down, and the apprehension mounts. Each object is a reminder of an undone to-do and an affront to your desire for visual serenity.

To win the war against clutter:

  • While you do these sorts of activities: Listening to podcasts, webinars, voicemail, or a conference call where you don’t have active participation.
  • Physical Order:Try putting items back in their places, opening mail, emptying your laptop case, dusting your desktop, and filing papers.

Bonus Tip: These should all be relatively routine tasks that do not require decision-making.

2. Layering w/ Eating & Exercise

When you feel time poor, taking care of your physical health can seem frivolous.  But when you layer on refreshing activities, eating and exercise can fit seamlessly into your routine.

To invest more time in health and wellness:

  • Eating & Exercise: Try cooking, going grocery shopping (with a pre-made list), eating a meal, taking a walk, or going to the gym.
  • While you do these sorts of activities: Calling a friend, listening to relaxing music, catching up on the news, watching kids, or thinking through a complex problem.

3. Layering w/ Social Connection

If you’re naturally a people person, getting enough human interaction into your day is essential. But even introverts (defined as those re-energized by being alone) need a sense of connection in their lives. With a little forethought, you can integrate people time into your life without overcrowding your already full calendar.

To spend more time with people:

  • Social Connection: Try commuting to work, walking to a meeting, attending an event, volunteering at an organization, going on a business trip or taking a class.
  • With these types of people: Your classmates, colleagues, friends, family members, or children.

4. Layering w/ Mental Processing

As I discussed in Counter Intuitive Benefits of Small Blocks of Time, the downtime between information intake and action can produce invaluable insight into the best solution for a problem. But if you fill every spare moment with external stimuli like answering texts, checking email, or watching TV, you limit the ability of your intuition to do the proper work.

To increase your time to think:

  • Mental Processing: Try reflecting on the day, considering solutions to a challenge, deciding on the outline of a paper, thinking through audience reaction to a presentation, or processing negative feedback and deciding how you will communicate your concerns.
  • While you do these sorts of activities: Waiting in line, being on hold, getting ready for the day, traveling between meetings, or doing mundane household tasks like laundry or ironing.

Bonus Tip: I find that by specifically reviewing my notes or feeding my brain with whatever information it needs to mull over directly before doing these tasks and carrying a pen and paper with me, I maximize my ability to solve the problem within the short break in time.

Over to You…

Have you found that layering works well for you? If so, what are your most effective strategies?

More insights on: Task Management, Time Management

Elizabeth Grace Saunders

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Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at
load comments (40)
  • DaveLEWIS

    I find that by listening to relevant Podcasts and taking notes, while I cook / wash dishes, I have more information to pour back into my Marketing / Methodology & Strategys when I am back at my desk :D

  • Pete R.

    A very different and detail approach. I’ll have to experiment with other mix and match myself. :) 

    Thanks for the post.

  • Tera Kristen

    I have a couple tv shows that I like to catch each week, but I hate sitting and doing nothing while watching them. I found that I wasn’t able to get anything done while watching them except for painting my nails and folding laundry. Now I feel less guilty about watching the shows because they’re visually absorbed in the slack time created by mindless physical tasks. 

    I will also preview new albums while I’m writing. I can zone the music out just enough that it doesn’t distract me from the work I’m doing, but I can still focus enough on the music to make mental notes of what songs I love. 

    Great article – I also love the linked article and read the whole 8 pages from start to finish. The first paragraph felt like a challenge!

  • Wilson Filho

    Thanks again Elizabeth, great strategies!

  • resume writing service

    your blog is awesome

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Excellent example of layering to keep a sharp mind and a clean house.

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Awesome examples of layering Tera!

    I especially like the laundry example—not only do you get to do something fun (watch a TV show you like) but also you take the discomfort out of doing a less fun–but necessary–task (folding laundry).

    I’m all about making staying on top of life as easy as possible.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Roberto Fiatt

    I’ve found myself using some kind of layering with mental processing. I noticed that if i visualize the priority of each task and able to position it between my other tasks i can evaluate my best line of execution that bests suits any given moment of my day. Sure you never know how things are gonna work out, and there are a lot of random factors but that’s why prioritizing works for me, also trying to have a close estimate on how much time its going to take me to perform each task. That being said, i don’t do that all the time, normally its under situations of a lot of stress and overload.

    Great tips

  • Ken Schabow

    Elizabeth, do you think it is better (in general) to multitask at every opportunity, or to focus on a single task at every opportunity.  In other words – are we more productive when we multitask?

  • Charlie Lyons

    I just realized that I’ve been layering for years and haven’t consciously noticed it: I typically arrive at the office and fire up my computer first thing and while its loading, I go get my cup of coffee from the break room. When I get back, “hello workday.” :) Simple illustration of this principle but literally the first thing that came to mind as I finished reading.

    Thanks, Elizabeth. I appreciate your insights here. Blessings!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Great question!

    If you’re working on projects that require a high level of focus, it’s best not to multitask. But as David Meyer says, multitasking can be effective when you’re doing multiple simple tasks.

    In my experience as a time coach, many of these daily activities that help you to feel good and have your life in order happen more frequently and more easily when you layer them on.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Fantastic! It’s those little habits that make our days go more smoothly–without adding stress.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Daniel

    I like to combine working out with cleaning the house. Neither activity is enjoyable for a sustained amount of time, but switching back and forth between them provides both rest and relief.  I’ll do a set of pushups, for example, then make the bed, then do more pushups, then organize my desk, then more pushups…

    This system works for me because it: 1) breaks activities which are unappealing or daunting in whole form (e.g. do 100 pushups or ‘clean the house’) into easier, smaller chunks; and 2) gives motivation to keep going even when the activity is taxing (‘I can do 10 pushups, in less than a minute I’ll be doing something else.’ –> ‘I can make the bed, in less than a minute I’ll be doing something else…’).

    Basically I am leveraging my restlessness/laziness against themselves here.


    The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lots of great information and inspiration, both of which we all need! 

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Awesome example!

    I can’t say that I do as many push ups as you, but one trick I discovered to answering personal e-mail (which I don’t find fun to do at night) is to make it as a quick “reward” and break between work during the day.

    When I insert it as a little “treat” between projects, it feels fun instead of like a drag at night. Once again harnessing my restlessness for the greater good.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Antonio Neves

    Brilliant post. Particularly love ‘Layering w/ Social Connection.’ At times, many of us, including myself, decide we have to go at it alone. So not true. Creating social connections whether in one’s personal or professional life changes things for the better. It’s one of the core tenets of positive psychology. Would definitely recommend Seligman’s book Flourish. Thanks Elizabeth. 

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    Very nice!

  • Tina Matsimella

    Really great…I’ve done this before just because you need to find a way to get things done…thank you!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Thanks Antonio!

    I’m glad that you liked the discussion of Social Connection.

    What I see quite often is that people who are busy (particularly
    introverts) can feel like they don’t “deserve” to connect with people
    because they haven’t completed all their work.

    But so often the best possible thing they could do for their productivity is to have a dose of time with people they enjoy.

    Layering on social connection can also supply positive peer pressure for things we want to do like volunteering, exercising or networking.

    To your brilliance!

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Patrick Cullen

    I think this works especially well if you take a moment to contemplate what tasks or activities are a natural fit rather than trying to force together a bunch of misshapen tasks.

    That computer startup does fit well with rounding up the first coffee of the morning. And most of what’s on the television can be safely ironed through, which says more about what’s on television than it does about my proficiency with an iron.


    These articles are fantastic, The information you show us is interesting for everybody and is really good written, very informative. It’s just nice! continue posting. Thanks! 

  • Rebekah Marenda Burder

    This definitely works for me. I often work out complex problems while running, or listen to podcasts while cleaning. 

  • Chuck

    I like reading while running on a treadmill (at least while I’m not pushing myself), I find that I can do that and still remember what I read and in fact I find I connect personally with what I’m reading better.  I also do desk clean-up and even some simple emails while listening to podcast.  I write thank you notes or greetings to clients while watching a movie.  If the movie is intense then I just address the envelopes — that way I get personalized cards while not taking the time to only work on them.

  • Tom

    I’ve found that I can listen to podcasts on the commute, and play level 15+ Tetris without a problem — the two things don’t interfere with each other in any noticeable way.  That’s also the only game (other than Bejewelled etc) that I can do this with.  Platform games or problem solving games derail the thought processes and I stop being able to listen to what’s being said on the podcast…  My only deduction is that these are using such completely different parts of my brain that they’re not interfering.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Love it! You’ve got triple layering going on: commute, podcast & Tetris.

    Way to layer it on!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Susan Alexander


    What a great post.  Really useful stuff here.  I’m especially going to try your strategy for layering w/ physical order.

    To your question about what works.  As you write, “the downtime between information intake and action” is hugely valuable.  My most useful mental processing strategy is pretty unique.  I blogged about it here

    I’d love to know what you think of it.

    Well done!

  • Susan Alexander

    What a good idea, Daniel.  I’m going to modify your approach with my new TRX. Thanks.  Susan

  • Chinezeks

    It’s interesting you said this because I discovered the same works for me when I’m playing modern combat and listening to an audio book. Somehow it just works.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     Those are great ideas for biking and layering!

    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Paul d'Aoust

    Huh, interesting stuff. I find I automatically do this ‘layering’ sort of thing — I love to read work-related blogs while I eat lunch. It’s a great way to do two things at lunch, and it’s a bit of a treat to keep me going in the middle of the day. (I’m not so fond of how my brain likes to process things while I sleep; that’s a not-so-nice form of multitasking.) I like your idea about filling your brain up with the ideas you want to think about before you barrel into laundry or the like, so that it just keeps thinking about them while you work; I should try it out.

  • Otreva

    Excercise always seems to help me work out complex problems but I seem to have my best thoughts in the shower every morning too.

  • Roxyryan325

    My favorite layering strategy is when I read to my kids, I pick kids stories that are about something I’m trying to improve. Sometimes confidence, meeting new people, listening better, etc. With my older son, we read biographies about interesting people who led exemplary lives. I find it to be really rewarding for everyone.

  • Sam

    So much space to think about the unconscious in these ideas…


  • Ndelisle

    Love layering…it works…also blocking…if I layer and block, I can weave big thinking tasks with small routine physical actions then come back to big thinking with greater capacity.  Seems that the seemingly silly call to do dishes or toss in a load of laundry or water the tulips actually helps shuffle and settle the thoughts  required for the big think. Love this for my writing life as well as the work at “the office”

  • Elizabeth Saunders

     I total agree! When you use layering time as thinking time–it’s not procrastination, it’s super productivity.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Evgenia Grinblo

    Very interesting blog post. I think I’ll give it a shot myself. 

  • Xoder

    Like the idea. I am engaging in similar one in which I  focused ONE Task on hand while subconcious completing another.

    . Eg. Main task  – Need to study.  I usually study for 50 mins then take  a ten minutes  break. 
    Sub- conscious action – washing a laudry load ( 45 mins) , soaking feet for the entire studying period and  loading a clip . Their are numerous sub conscious task that can be done at the same time without  inversely affecting the mine task that need total concentration.

    At the end of the 50 mins ( i.e. finish studying , washing laudry, soaking my feet and ensure that the clip loaded),  I take 10 mins. break in which I load  the dryer ,dry my soaked feet  and  ensure that the clip was loaded.

    I find that this helps increases my concentraiton as I’m not worrying about have to quickly completing my task in order to move one toe rest of the things on my ‘  things to list .’

    Noted : Combining the Main task and the subconscious actions however have to be decided before starting to ensure compatibility.

  • francis

    Yes indeed, 1 and 4 I do, 2 & 3 needs some work but got good hints on doing so. Thanks and GOD (JESUS) Bless.

  • Jordan Lundy

    I constantly have to do “layering” at my own place. Since I still live with my parents while I’m in college and I have three siblings; it’s hard to have a moment of peace with my family constantly making noise. I often do homework while listening to music, have a podcast going while I work on my comics, etc. Although, not having a space that I can work at quietly requires a constant amount of music going. Lol

  • sobercool

    Yeah. This is way studying+music never works. What I got from this article is that “multilayering” involves doing some proper mind-work while doing something does not need mind-work.

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