Why not multitasking how to

The problem: You know it is better to avoid multi-tasking for better productivity but your environment seems to make it impossible.
Many life hackers strongly recommend not to multi-task, but in most cases it seems simply impossible as reality does not really allow single-tasking in a lot of cases, e.g.:
  • If I do not take the phone I have to call back later. Maybe then I do not find the other person available and until I get in touch a lot more time passes and the cost of the phone call either goes on my company. So it is simply better to accept the phone interruption.
  • In a lot of offices there are more people sitting in one room - in my case the room neither has a door so anybody else easily can come in. Hence disturbing events cannot be avoided. And I either cannot place a traffic light on my desk. Naturally my boss expects me to be available for him - since he is paying me :-). I either cannot leave office as I am expected to be available - we are not so many people that for everybody there is a substitution.
  • Even if I manage to stay on one project for a day, project priorities often change very fasten. I am told to learn APIs from product A and then suddenly gets obsolete and I should focus on product or project B. And every day a customer may call with some very urgent issue.
…just to give a few examples.

The reason: There is not a single reason and hence no single answer to this problem. You have to distinguish different cases. - Different problem requires different handling.
There are several different types of interrupts - basically I see 5 classes of events that causes need for multi-tasking (starting with the easiest to avoid):
  1. Self triggered/created distractions.
    Actions like reading new mail instantly as they arrive, reading news and RSS feeds and so on. Usually you can find out that you switch to such tasks more easy if you should work on some difficult other thing that you really hate to do. You accept - no - you welcome this kind of interrupts usually because
    a) you are (or should be) working on a difficult or nasty task producing inner resistance and opposition or
    b) you have priorities and interests that do not match with your current job (duties) and/or the priorities set by your boss.
  2. Interrupts created by your family and friends.
    Ever experienced your wife or mom calling you continuously in the office asking you when exactly you will come home or what else to buy on the way home?
  3. Interrupts created by colleagues.
    Some co-workers do often interrupt by asking questions, asking for help or wanting to tell you some nice story.
  4. Interrupts created by customers.
    All kind of customer or suppliers, partners and other kind of people. Customers usually have to be treated very well so they are some kind of boss for you.
  5. Interrupts created by the boss.
    When the boss comes in and asks you things to do now then they usually cause immediately a change of priorities and you have to change task immediately. Your boss is paying you doing your duty - and part of this duty is being available for the boss any time (at least during the working hours ;-) ).
You can assume that you will never stop interruptions completely and totally quit multi-tasking. Especially point 5 from above and partly also 4 are some things you have only few possibility to change. Be satisfied to reduce multi-tasking a bit - use the pareto principle (80/20 rule).

The solution: Reduce interruptions from different sources by using different strategies, accept multi-tasking where it cannot be avoided and see the positive side of multi-tasking. What you can also reduce is the effect it has on you.

Where is the positive side of multitasking? - As I mentioned in the previous post "Decision planning", before taking a decision you should have some days doing a pause not thinking of the issue. Multi-tasking is an opportunity to pause one task (where you maybe have a problem not finding a good solution now) waiting for a good idea or coming back freshly powered.

According to the 5 classes of interrupts I mentioned above here are the different solution proposals:
  1. Self triggered/created distractions:
    • Re-sync your priorities and interests with the ones of your boss and/or the company (have a talk with your boss about the company goals) or
    • Change your job. Changing your job does not necessarily mean you have to change company. Nowadays in larger companies there are also possibilities to change the field of work also by staying within the company and just change department or products to deal with.
    • When both seems impossible, try to learn something from your daily duty that improves the skills that you want to improve (according to your personal priorities).
  2. Interrupts created by your family and friends:
    • Your family and friends can be briefed not to call you in the office or not to chat you.
    • Regarding chat one possibility can be that you simply set yourself into do-not-disturb-mode.
    • Inform your family and friends that if you need to pay additional attention to your family and friends while in the office then you will come home later then.
  3. Interrupts created by colleagues:
    Regarding co-workers it depends if you are in a team working effectively together or not.
    • If it is a colleague you are working with in a team then you can schedule time frames in your calendar where your full attention is dedicated to the open issues - which is a benefit for both of you: The co-worker gets your full attention and you do not get interrupted again with one question after the other. Ask your co-worker to prepare all questions and issues to discuss - which will be an opportunity for the co-worker to deal with the topic and maybe one or the other question either disappears suddenly.
    • But apart from co-workers there can be people just nagging you without working (officially) together on a project and maybe you don't see any benefit from cooperating with them. In these cases there is possibility to nag them back and after a while they will give up nagging you. you can tell them
      • that you don't know an answer for their question,
      • tell them to come later when you have time (tell them a time then),
      • tell them to search the internet,
      • tell them to write you an e-mail (or a forum post or some specification) - that is additional work for them and for you it offers easy dropping to your GTD-Folders.
  4. Interrupts created by customers:
    • If there is anything that a customer should prepare before calling (especially for support calls) then the customer should be "trained" to prepare those things (for example send some screen shots) or fill out some forms. Sometimes people want a solution and neither are aware yet of the problem nor have collected a minimum of data or started a minimum of analysis.
    • On phone calls try to immediately check the "real urgency" (some state always that it is urgent even if it isn't) and for non urgent things estimate the needed time and schedule it on your calendar. State that you are going to solve the customers problem - tell the customer either when exactly you are going to work on his thing. If you need the customers cooperation then it is good to have a time frame where you and the customer both have a reserved piece of time for the issue. This reduces stress on both sides.
    • Never ever forget about customer requests or put them away to think about "when is time"! The customer will learn and call you every week to remind you on the issue which is more and more interruptions - or will give up and choose another supplier. If the customer can rely on you and knows that you will serve him then there is no reason for him to call you repeatedly.
    • Have a forum or at least a support email address and teach customers to drop there problem by mail or forum post. One advantage is that issues discussed in written form can be easier used later as a knowledge base. For customers calling unnecessarily often you can give them some extra wait or tell them you need to look up something and then call back. Call back at lunch times or shortly before the customer wants to go home in the evening. This may help bringing support to forum or e-mail which is better for you because you can decide when to look into the mails.
  5. Interrupts created by the boss:
    These are definitely the hardest. Who pays, commands. Interrups here often causes changes in the priorities - immediately. But there are things you can do (apart from changing your job ;-) ):
    • Ask the boss for weekly meetings to exchange news and current company goals.
    • Ask for a weekly "Priority-Newsletter". Then you get the priorities by mail and can deal with them when you have time.
    • If your boss changes the priorities too often (more than once a week for instance) it might not be a problem to simply skip some - to leave an issue open may not cause any affect tomorrow because then there will be already completely different priorities and older ones are forgotten.
    • Create little "penalties" for an interrupt - for instance:
      • on the interruption tell the boss what you were working on and deliver it with a short delay.
      • Take a little longer to respond so the boss can clearly see that you are currently still thinking of the work you were supposed to do before. Let the boss "participate" on the "time loss because of process swapping".
      • State "good that you interrupt, for an hour I need to go to the toilet in reality. Just a minute - then I have more time for you". - This might be exaggerated but it shows two things: A penalty and the important fact that you let the boss know that his is interrupting you. So he gets reminded that he is permanently interrupting you.
      Remember that these actions should only be taken when you get interrupted too often - this is not a strategy that should be used in general!!!
    • Use strategies that were mentioned above to be used for customers.
As reducing some sort of interrupts you can also - in parallel - reduce the lasting effect of the interrupts. I recognize it often that the actual interruption is short but not the required work that is generated by the interrupt. Here you have to distinguish between the actual interrupt, the change of priorities and the generated required work. For example when your boss is getting to you with some sort of work to be done then that is the actual interrupt. You can put the topic in your inbox (speaking of GTD-principles here) but an interruption does not necessarily implicit that you immediately have to start dealing with the subject coming up during the interruption. And further it does not automatically implicit the amount of work invested right now. You can start working on it for 15 minutes and for the rest allocate appropriate time slices in your calendar. And some things that now seem to be important turn out to be obsolete already a few days later. So do not take every new issue too serious!

Depending on your actual job there is some percentage of time lost dealing with unavoidable interrupts. Depending on that percentage you should leave appropriate gaps in your calendar. So an interrupt is still annoying but it does not bring you in trouble finishing your work in time.

When you reduced the number of interrupts and their effect you can focus on those tasks that really need to be done. Many tasks are too big to solve them in one piece and so they have to be split. Analyze them, cut them into smaller pieces and schedule appropriate time frames in your calender - for instance - every Friday is day to work on the new company's website.

When you get interrupted see the benefit of getting in distance to the current problem you are struggling with having the opportunity to get back to the overview again probably finding a better solution to your detail problem as mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Related posts: Decision planning, GTD - E-Mail-Folders and Tags, LTO - Letting things open, When to strictly avoid multitasking, Razor sharp focus, Cost of substitution.


Detect the weak point

Lately I got a link to a video of the song "Guten Morgen liebe Sorgen". It is a german song I already knew but this video seems to be a life record and quite at the beginning the singer wants the audience to sing also. As they sing very soft his first reaction is "I never heard so many people singing so soft. Let's detect the weak point." - Then he asks first the males and then the females to sing.

What we can learn from it:

When something does not work well, don't hesitate to make investigations, analysis and tests to identify the weak point(s). Every chain is only so strong as the weakest link!

Related posts: Crappy guesswork, Analysis and therapy.

You can learn fast

The problem: Repetitive experience of negative effects.
I am sure everybody knows the situation where something negative happens and you know that you already experienced this several times. And you are angry because you don't know how it happens that you again trap on the same egg.

The reason: You know the negative effect when it arrives and not when you are causing it.
Negative effects are often caused a lot earlier than they really hit you. If you can immediately experience the negative effect after your action then you will learn faster because you know well the action to omit or replace with some other action. Think of your childhood shocks - how fast it could happen that from some experience you learn so intensive that it is a problem to change your learned habits later.

The solution: Try to draw the link from negative effects to the causing action(s).
Sure, often negative effects are caused by multiple events that are not always under your control. But in general there is something you contribute to the bad situation. So when experiencing negative effects then draw the line to all your actions that contributed to it and memorize alternative ways how you could behave in the future in such situations.

And second when you do things draw the line to possible effects in the future - also in the far future! So treat people nice. The one next to you in the bus you stepped on the foot could be your future boss. ;-)

Related post: Think yourself.


Decision planning

The problem: Instability of decisions already taken
Often after you made a decision it happens that you uncertain if it was the right decision. A single news headline a day later might bring instability into your mind.

The reason: Decisions are often made to fast and without knowledge
The decision taken from out of the belly is often a good decision but people forget that for a good belly-decision you need according information in the background (of your brain) and appropriate experience. Decisions are often made too quickly because of urgent problems. People do not want to loose time and go ahead. But going too fast may cause wrong decisions and wrong decisions can cost a lot more time and money than stopping a while looking around before going on.

The solution: Plan your decisions similar to a project
In general it is good to know very early about upcoming decisions because then you have enough time to prepare and make a decision with profound information. In the last year I had some long term and big decisions to make and I think I did the right decisions. Looking back I can see the following steps:
  1. Define the challenge / problem / goal.
  2. Search for related information (Search the internet, read books, ask people, ...).
  3. Get an overview about your current situation (or what it will be when the decision is to be made) and your resources (required material, money and time).
  4. Identify probable paths to solve the problem or reach the goal, the required resources and possible pitfalls.
  5. Wait - do something else and let the information seep through.
    Depending on the complexity, time to point of actual decision and scope this time may be either one day or several months. This opens your mind to view the world (or the market - if you are a salesman) in other perspectives that may contribute to solve your issue.
  6. Review existing information, consolidate and search again for related information - this time more specialized towards the most attractive solutions. Mostly you have minimum 3 ways to solve a problem so there should always be several choices (and not just do it or not to do it).
  7. Look at the most attractive solutions from (totally) different point of views and other perspectives.
  8. Take a deep breath and take the decision.
  9. Check the best opportunities to take your first action and plan continuous actions to realize your goal (to organize material, money and reserve time on your calendar).
  10. Action! - Decisions do not have effect without the according actions.

Simple sample to illustrate:
  1. You are going to to sports and then you will take a shower.
  2. You search or ask where the shower is (well not when you are at home but maybe out in the public, at a hotel or at friends) - before you already undressed ;-).
  3. Check your path from sports to the shower.
  4. Know what will be available and what you need to take with you to the shower - e.g. towel, soap, slippers, new clothes.
  5. Well for such simple tasks you might not need to wait long, but at least count down slowly from 5 to 0 before you go - this gives a little time to your brain coming out with something your might have forgotten.
  6. Recheck if you have everything. Double-checking everything is always a good idea - not only because usually during the steps you might get interrupted at least once (by others or yourself).
  7. Imagine different possible activities you could do and opportunities you may have after taking the shower (maybe to go out with a nice girl ;-) ).
  8. Breath and decide to go for a shower - (or decide to skip it if they way is too long or there is no warm water available ;-) )
  9. Check the best opportunity (less people currently under the shower for example or somehow occupied) so you don't have to wait.
  10. Go for it!
A more significant sample:
  1. Your family plans include children and so your family is about to grow. You would like to change to a larger apartment.
  2. Search the internet and market to find out the value of your current residence and the prices of larger apartments or houses in different regions to get an overview what is available for what price.
  3. Check your current financial possibilities and give an estimation about your (and your wife's) work and earnings situation in the future.
  4. Check banks for required loan offers and read carefully the contracts. Talk with your parents about your plans - they might have started saving some money for you already when you still were a child. :-)
  5. Wait at least a few weeks. Walking around you will see related advertisements you might have passed by already several times, you will be attentive to related talks in TV, radio or discussions of people sitting next to you in the train. All this can give you new ideas and opportunities.
  6. Sort already retrieved information and classify - e.g. houses with garden, apartments, sort by district and so on. The one or the other may turn out to be more attractive than other solutions. Go and search again especially for offers in your favorite district for example.
  7. Think again of the opportunity to remain at your existing residence. Think also about the benefits that the new residence can bring along - for example a shorter way to work or cheaper supermarkets in the near. Review the benefits and costs of your desire and think of the financial risks.
  8. Take a deep breath and ... sleep another night ... and then take the decision.
  9. Check the best opportunity - a good offer - and start planning your move.
  10. Take action - choose your new home and start throwing away things you do not need any more, pack your things that you will not need any more until the move and ...
When important decisions are taken with a profound background of information and looking at the issue from different aspects your decision will be more stable - it will be a solid rock on which you can build further activities and decisions. Good decisions will not be revised every day again and again - when every morning the priorities change completely.

Related post: Direction over goals.