Perhaps there used to be jobs which didn’t require “wearing multiple hats,” but these days virtually every professional role requires task switching. You may be helping multiple different customers or juggling different projects. What’s the best way to get the most done when you have many wildly different things to do?
First, let’s put some terminology on what you may already know. The ability to concentrate—which arises from long blocks of uninterrupted time—is essential to maximizing your personal productivity. The mental state that we work ourselves into for these tasks which are highly challenging and require a high degree of skill is called flow. That’s a term coined by researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which we’ve covered in past blog posts about workplace productivity and overwork.
Second, a healthy reminder about the myth of multitasking. You cannot do more than one intellectually meaningful activity at the same time. So it’s possible to read a book while eating, but it’s not possible to read a book while having a conversation. At best, you can rapidly switch your focus. This “task switching,” as research shows, is the most expensive part.
The American Psychological Association has collected some research on this topic. They write:
[Researchers’] evidence suggests that the human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks. That’s helpful. Problems arise only when switching costs conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.
Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
In summary, here’s what you should do if you have to juggle multiple tasks.
Work as long as you possibly can on each project. If you have three clients and three hours, try to work for an hour on client A, followed by a client on hour B, and finally an hour on client C. Don’t work in ten minute cycles.
This may sound like obvious advice, but if you’re being honest, you’ll see how rarely you do this. In fact, chances are that before you finish this article, you’ll be distracted by something else that will interrupt your flow.
Build in ramp-up and ramp-down time – If you know you’ll be working for the rest of the day on a particular project, make sure to build in at least fifteen minutes to wrap up. Use this time to leave yourself notes, flag the parts you’ve recently touched, and organize your materials for easy access next time. The science fiction author Cory Doctorow says it this way:
When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the “hint.” Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.
Keep project notes separated. Avoid a unified work log. If you’re billing multiple clients or plugging away on multiple related activities, it might seem tempting to create a single master journal to track everything you’re doing.
The problem with this is that it makes it even easier to get distracted. You’ll see notes for a different project and want to switch over, breaking your discipline. So if you want to keep a journal, create one for every individual activity. Keep your notes separate.
Use ubiquitous capture, but not ubiquitous retrieval. Ever wake up in the middle of a night or find yourself struck in the middle of an unrelated meeting with an idea for some unrelated project? Ubiquitous capture is the idea that you need to have some tool with you at all times where every little random idea can be recorded. This can be a pad of paper, your favorite smart phone app, or a mini-tape recorder. (Alternately, you can just decide to let things go.)
However, just because you can capture your ideas anywhere does not mean you should be able to retrieve your ideas anywhere. A searchable, indexed database of all your projects that is with you every moment of the day might sound helpful, but in truth it’s the ultimate distraction. Think of how much the Internet draws you away from your work, and it’s not all that personalized! In summary, make sure that when you’re working on a project you can capture random ideas for other projects, but that you can’t easily get those project details so you get sucked in.
So that’s it. Good luck with improving your workflow. Now, get back to whatever you were doing before you were distracted by this blog post.