PM#8 – Multi-tasking is evil

“Nobody can do two things at the same time and do them well.”

Don Marquis

Clarke has often lamented about how multi-tasking is evil, something that was emphasised in #7 – High workload means lower productivity…

Humans aren’t multithreaded, therefore we can only do one thing at a time (this applies to men and women, please don’t be shocked or surprised).

Overlapping activities vs a three-course meal
Invariably, the more work that you pile on an individual or the more work that he or she accepts, you’ll find that individual attempting to multi-task under the premise that they believe they can do two or more things and do them well. Most of us struggle to cook a healthy meal, getting the timing right such that the meat, the vegetables and the potatoes are all ready at the same time eludes us. So why should we expect the same individual in the workplace to be able to manage three work basket items at the same time and with the same delivery date? Unless the three work basket items are trivial, we should endeavour to work with the individual and ensure that the three work basket items are scheduled such that there is little or no overlap.

Why do we find ourselves multi-tasking?
Multi-tasking, it seems, is forced upon us because there is a fear that employees will either take too long on a task or will complete it early and have nothing to do until the next task is issued. If you’ve got staff like that you should fire them and hire some staff who like challenges and who like endorphin rushes when they start something and finish it…at which point they’ll go off in search of the next challenge. Keeping an employee or developer busy seems to be fairly normal – we all moan about how much work we have to do…instead of moaning (or blogging as some might say), go and start a piece of work, progress it in small bite-sized chunks. Not all tasks need 2 hours, 2 days or 2 weeks to complete – those that do can be broken down into smaller more manageable tasks that are easier to swallow (read: easier to start). When you do break a larger task down, do be sure to follow each of the sub-tasks through to completion…and don’t lose sight of the parent task (i.e. don’t be distracted and lose focus!)

Respect the schedule
We find ourselves multi-tasking because other people don’t realise that we might have a schedule (a sequence of events/tasks that we’re trying to follow). Other folks will happily e-mail you, telephone you, walk up to you and [in the words of Scott Adam’s Dilbert] “expect you to drop whatever you’re doing and work on their problem”. Quite how you tell these folks that they are upsetting your carefully crafted schedule (even if it is written on the back of an envelope, whatever works for you…) is likely to be a personal thing and something that varies from organisation to organisation. Whatever you do, other folks have to understand that you are not sitting idly by your telephone or inbox waiting for them to contact you…you have work to do, you have a schedule, you have deliverables. Multi-tasking or task-switching will make you less productive which has a spiralling effect on the health of the project and your own health.

However, being seen to have a schedule and offering to fit their request in to your schedule is likely to win you some points too. Find out when these other folks need you to do their work by, then negotiate to fit it in: it’s very probable that with the thought that they’ve offloaded work onto you, the other folks will be happy with a negotiated date that suits you more than them…after all, you are saving them doing the work in the first place.

As soon as other folks realise that you’re working to a schedule and that they are part of that schedule, your multi-tasking or task-switching instances should reduce. Over time, those other folks will learn to approach you in less disruptive ways, e.g. via e-mail, knowing that you’ll “schedule it in and get back to them”…well, that’s the plan at least. I’ve enjoyed some success with this approach, it does depend upon the make-up of your team.

Pseduo-multi-tasking?
This might sound like I’m contradicting the purpose of this post, but it’s not, trust me. Despite heavy workloads, most of us are guilty of some degree of procrastination. We’ll delay or put off starting a task because…because it’s too big, because we don’t understand part of it, because it’ll take a long time to start and finish. Fine, either break it down into the previously mentioned smaller tasks or just start it. I’m using this approach to ensure blog posts are published: I simply start a blog post and save it drafts. Every so often I’ll spend a few minutes updating the blog post until it’s ready to be published. It’s easier to find a few minutes here and there than it is to find a few hours. Obviously this approach is only useful where tasks can be tackled in this fashion.

In this series:
PM#11 – Management By Shouting Loudest (MSBL)
PM#10 – The truth is best…admit it…
PM#9 – Avoid duplication of effort
PM#8 – Multi-tasking is evil
PM#7 – High workload means lower productivity…
PM#6 – You were right and I was wrong
PM#5 – Whose schedule is it anyway?
PM#4 – Start it…finish it
PM#3 – Use e-mail properly
PM#2 – Focus on the project
PM#1 – decision making