Luis Suarez in a piece today, Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain? – Part Deux: Singlecasting, talked about the importance of focus and the issues associated with multitasking. And he provided pointers to many useful discussions and solutions. Namely: do one thing at a time for a defined period of time.
But first, I want to define multitasking (again). Everyone knows by know that "multitasking is bad for you." Right? But what do people mean when they say that? Is it walking and talking at the same time? What about listening to music and reading a book? What about eating and driving? What about trying to accomplish five things at once at home or at work? What about simply having your phone, your email, Twitter, instant messaging and your news service all running in the foreground? And don't all of your job descriptions have something about "needs to be an excellent multitasker" in them somewhere? So what's the big deal?
The key problem that most productivity gurus have with multitasking is that you never get anything done. More specifically: nothing gets done quickly. Just look at how long it is taking me to write this blog post. Along with the reading and synthesizing and writing required to put this together, I have also done the following: updated TweetDeck; read a few tweets; updated Outlook to check less frequently; played some music; done some laundry; got some more coffee. All of these changes in activity expand the duration of my writing.
Now think about how this works in the average day. There isn't just one thing that needs to be done, but a whole raft of them. Start working on item one; get distracted; decide to work on item two; meeting; work again on one; get distracted; find item three; boss comes by; item four; meeting; recover item one; distraction; item three again; rinse and repeat. And then you get to the end of the day and realize that you might have finished one of these while the others are sitting there, awaiting your attention. This is the pernicious effect of multi-tasking. More specifically, it is a combination of distractions and frequent task switching.
How to get around this? What should you do instead?
- Remove the distractions. Turn off any software alerts and noise-making devices. If you have to leave the phone one, look at the caller ID and decide whether it's worth breaking your stride.
- Do one thing at a time. Pick a block of time to work on ONE THING, whether that is processing email; writing an article; etc. Of course there are some activities that require a break to refuel and ponder. But this still fits into this kind of model. Take the break, come back and decide what to work on next. But make the explicit decision to do that work.
- Discipline. Do not allow "quick breaks" to become drawn out affairs. This is where you need to trick your brain: instead of taking a quick peak at your email or Twitter, set aside a specific block of time - like 15 minutes. If you don't have 15 minutes, then don't look. Have the discipline to say No! to everything else.
While discipline is always a hot topic for people, I think #2 is one of the hardest for people to get started. Yet it is the most powerful. There are many ways to do this, but I think it needs two main pieces: the time and the decision. For the time, you can use any number of methods from just doing something for a dedicated time to setting aside time on your calendar to something like the Pomodoro Technique with a timer.
Making a decision to do something also means making a decision NOT to do everything else. The decision of what to do is a prioritization decision and is often quite obvious for individuals. But when this decision isn't so obvious, how to get some help? There are plenty of discussions of task priority, but I am thinking of a different direction today. One problem that people run into is that there are often many things to work on, all with essentially the same priority. This is too much work-in-process, and has a vicious cycle feedback with these topics. One big area that can help is to find a way to remove the excess work in process. We need some way to set aside all the stuff that could be done from the stuff you are going to do. In groups, there could be a gating mechanism so that each person only has three priority activities, with everything else held by a gatekeeper. You don't get something new to do until you have finished one of your current priorities. Or if you need to start something new, you must return something else to the gatekeeper. For a more personal solution, I really like the concept behind Personal Kanban. (Mike Dalton has written up a nice series on how he uses this: Managing your constraint - Part I, Managing your constraint - Part II, Managing your constraint - Part III.)
[Photo: "T-EggTimer" by Michelle - notanartist]