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.


AvaniMehta said...

Great post. If we can reconnect to work immediately after a short break, life would be so much better. Increasing power of concentration / focus can do that.

Have you heard about Srimad Rajchandra also known as SHATAVADHANI - one who could attend to a hundred affairs simultaeneously? Rajchandra could play one move in the game of chess, come back after an hour and know what you moved and what strategy he was thinking of in an instant.


Martin Wildam said...

No, I didn't hear about Srimad Rajchandra so far. Maybe if he produces enough children (maybe in multitasking ;-) ) in a few hundred years most of the population of the world is able to multitask. ;-)