Multitasking is a serious problem for knowledge workers. We get tied up with doing many things at once without ever getting one of them finished. My test: how many things-in-progress do I have sitting open on my computer at the end of the day? How many "I thought I sent that" comments do I make to myself?
It's a particular problem with knowledge work because the pile of work-in-process isn't visible. And we are wired to be responsive - when someone asks for help, we tend to say "yes" rather than "no" (or "not now"). The result is 10, 15, even 20 activities that we are each trying to track.
And how to deal with it? The basic rule is to find ways to cut the work in process - stop taking on so much at one time. Stage the release of new work. But how?
One mechanism is to visualize the work. Put up a simple "task board" or make it more interesting with Personal Kanban. And then with this, there is a better way to say to oneself or to those asking for help -- see how much I have now? Can it wait? What should I put back in the queue, if I take on this new activity?
Another concept I have heard about from Manager Tools is the idea that some work gets "dropped to the floor" - it gets ignored or purposefully not done. This works under the assumption that I have more work than time available. I've just heard of another version of this from a Trello webinar: a concept called The rule of five, which itself comes from Joel Spolsky. Here's the basic idea (follow the link for details):
Conceptually, this turned into the “5 things” idea: he realized what he really wanted to hear from his team was a list of 5 things:
- Two tasks they were currently working on.
- Two tasks they planned to work on next.
- One that people might expect them to be working on, but they weren’t actually planning on doing.
He would then have only 5 items per person to check on. As a manager he sought to gain a clear perspective of what was happening, and he thought a process like this would help his employees prioritize their work and truly accomplish something.
This is a combination of the task board and the idea of dropping things to the floor. Have an explicit list and keep it in control. Interesting.