As we’re all expected to deliver faster without sacrificing quality, we face an ever-increasing amount of work and find ourselves having to multitask. While multitasking does not make you more productive generally, it’s still sometimes necessary, so it’s a good idea to have some tips for doing it to the best of your ability.
Multitasking can happen when you try to perform two tasks simultaneously, switch from one task to another, or perform two or more tasks in rapid succession. Let’s focus on one of the more common types, task-switching, which frequently occurs due to interruptions.
Switching Tasks Decreases Your Throughput
Someone comes in and asks you to review an Excel document. If you happen to be working in Excel already, this is still an interruption, but not a horrible one. On the other hand, if you are rehearsing a PowerPoint presentation when the person asks you to review that Excel document, then that is a bad throughput hit. You switched from a speaking mindset to a data analysis mindset, which takes more mental effort.
A study on the cost incurred by interrupted work showed that workers who are interrupted during a task actually tend to complete that task a little quicker than if there had been no interruption. However, because people compensate for interruptions by working faster, this comes at a price, including experiencing more stress as well as higher frustration, time pressure, and effort. Anyone who’s ever been interrupted in the middle of something important is probably not surprised to learn this.
Now, let's say you are working on a very complicated task. You are deeply focused on finishing by the completion date. Suddenly, the phone next to you rings, destroying your focus. You save your work so that you do not have to start over again and answer the phone. At first, you struggle to focus on what the caller is saying due to being so deeply involved in the previous work.
As the call goes on, you notice that you are in tune with the person on the phone. Your mind is no longer thinking about the previous task. You hear what the person is saying. You begin to take notes and ask questions. Effective communication is happening!
You write down the last notes from the call and hang up. Now confronted with the previous job, your mind struggles to recall where you were. Finally, your focus returns and you proceed with where you left off. Because of the two task switches, your throughput has decreased.
We all know interruptions are bound to happen. How can you get back on track quicker and be more productive? Here are some of the ways I used agile techniques to avoid the task-switching throughput hit.
Agile Techniques to Minimize Productivity Setbacks
First, I set up a personal backlog. Every week I take the time to prioritize what I know I need to accomplish. I know that I have to answer email. I know that I have an article to write. I have to review progress on my projects. I have to have a date night with my wife. I put everything I know about into my personal backlog, which gives me a list to work from. You are in control of what gets done. Take charge!
When a new priority surfaces that I have to work on, I take the time to review my previous personal backlog to see what I can remove to make room for the new priority.
I also break down the backlog items into smaller items. Say that you have a backlog item titled “Upgrade video player on website.” That is pretty ambiguous. Break that down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Those could be “Retrieve new video player code from repository,” “Install new video player on dev website,” and “Test four videos on dev website.” Breaking down that original item will help you estimate how much time is needed to perform the task.
Second, I establish set times and priorities each day to work on tasks. My personal nemeses are reading and answering emails. Because I don’t really enjoy that, I do those tasks first so that my day only gets better. When I put off unpleasant tasks, I don’t always get them done. By defining how long and when I am doing certain tasks, the throughput can remain pretty consistent.
Several years ago I learned from some colleagues about the Pomodoro Technique. The technique uses a timer to break down work windows into 25-minute intervals separated by five-minute breaks. Although taking breaks may seem counterintuitive, research shows it can actually enhance your focus when you return to the task you were working on.
Using the “Upgrade video player” task example above, I estimate that the “Retrieve new video player code from repository” task should take one pomodoro. The “Test four videos on dev website” might be two pomodoros, depending on the length of the videos in question. This technique has really helped me timebox my work, and I highly recommend it as another way to increase your throughput.
Another thing I do to stay focused is disable incoming notifications. You have established a schedule for looking at and responding to email, social media, and the like. You do not need all those reminders. Are you that much in demand?
Last, if you are transparent about your new mindset, it can help you avoid interruptions in the first place. Tell managers and coworkers what you are doing and when—for instance, let them know to expect email replies from 8 a.m. to 8:25 a.m. Doing this helps your team know when you are available for different types of questions and will make them less likely to interrupt your workflow.
Multitasking is a necessary evil, but your work quality and quantity don’t have to suffer. Take some action and reduce the hits to your throughput.