In my business I cannot go a day without, having a conversation about multi-tasking. It’s as if every wave of new recruits entering the business world rediscovers that it’s hard to manage ten things at once. So naturally, being type-As, they vow to get good at it.
And we all do get good at it and pat ourselves on the back for being “master multi-taskers”. I see this on resumes all the time, “Great at multi-tasking!“.
It’s an impressive skill to be able to juggle 10 things at once and sometimes it will save your ass, but at some point everyone faces the reality that multi-tasking is not efficient and they just don’t seem to be getting the results they want. Just once, I want to see a resume that says, “I’ve mastered single-tasking and am proud of it.”
Bruce Henry wrote a great article on how multi-tasking is killing your business, you might want to stop and read that right now. In Bruce’s post, he assumed that switching cost was zero to make the point that there is major business value at stake when you get carried away by multi-tasking.
My post looks at the issue of switching costs and personal productivity. Hopefully it gets people thinking about how much time is wasted just in juggling multiple tasks and (with a little self-control) how you can get more done and maybe get more of your life back.
I’ll make the case visually. Since most projects break down to small tasks, let’s pretend your job is processing a big bin of one hour tasks (think of each task as a ping pong ball if that helps you visualize).
The first fact to accept is that there is overhead associated with starting and ending any given task and I’ll estimate that at 15 minutes per task, on average. The 15 minutes covers grabbing coffee, pulling together the info you need for next task, checking twitter, and letting your brain sink into the work. So now we’re looking at 1.25 hours all in. I’ll draw the overhead as a red halo around the ping pong ball.
Assuming you eat at your desk, work 8 hours a day, and work 5 days a week, you’ll be able to fit about 30 tasks into a week.
That’s good productivity, in fact it’s awesome and I wish I was that good. I get interrupted more which is like restarting, so my tasks look more like this:
Everyone knows switching and interruptions come with a cost. If I get interrupted four times in an hour; I pretty much have to write off that hour for task productivity. It takes my mind time to get back into the task and do real work.
So if you are juggling three things at a time, stopping and starting, then your week probably looks more like this:
If you manage your tasks in a simple spreadsheet, your spreadsheet probably told you’d have 40 tasks done in a 40-hr week (that’s a BIG FAIL planning wise). That plan would be off by a factor of 2 when you consider switching costs and juggling 3 tasks at any given time. This is one of many reasons that spreadsheets kind of suck for planning.
Now let’s see a show of hands, how many people actually have a week that looks like this:
I talk to people all the time that are trying to juggle 10-50 things at a time and bounce between email, file shares, notes, calendars, and post-its. They swear to me that they cannot multi-task less. That might be true, but at least they can try to do something about the switching costs. And those costs will not change if they keep using the same bad habits and mishmash of tools.
To really knock down the switching costs, examine your habits and tools and aim for these goals:
- Use a tool that allows you to easily prioritize your tasks and reminds you to work serially as much as you can.
- Use a tool that collects and holds all the relevant information for your tasks.
- Use a tool that allows your team to make their contributions directly to your tasks without having to interrupt you or send you more messages and files that you to then have to process, sort, classify, and store.
- Finally, put some fraking quiet time discipline in place to get work done – close your door, shutdown email, close twitter, and reward yourself for getting things done vs. merely juggling work.
Do this and you’ll have less interruptions and it will be easier to get back up to speed after you context switch; it will be like money in the bank.
Of course these insights are why LiquidPlanner is designed to help manage the crush of everyday stuff as well as the big marquee projects. I’ve got my stuff lined up, do you?
How much further ahead would you be if you could get five more things done each week? You might even have time to write a blog post like this one.