The taskmaster

Multitasking. That’s been the aspiration of the American worker for the last decade as technology has been delivering more and more information to us faster and faster. The problem is that multitasking is not the panacea everyone hoped it would be. In fact, attempts to multitask actually reduce productivity and effectiveness. That’s what current science is finding.

In early 2010, Stanford University released a study that concluded in part that people just don’t multitask very well. But we don’t even need to look to science to know this is true. Just ask yourself whether you’ve ever been in someone else’s office trying to have a conversation with them while they checked their e-mail. How effective and productive was the experience? Not very, right?

The reason we don’t multitask well is founded more on an economic theory called a switch cost than anything else. A switch cost is the cost (in this case, time) of switching between processes. That’s because every time you switch between things – one task to another – it takes a moment to come up to speed on the new task before you can be productive. Thus, as you can see, the more switches that occur, the higher the cost in lost time.

Do one thing at a time.

Even though this is extremely difficult to do in the modern work environment, turning off new message alerts and working behind closed doors for short periods of time greatly assists you in reducing the interruptions that litter your day. Now with a little quieter space, give yourself a leg up by trying to work on only one thing at a time, in order to eliminate any switch costs that you’re adding to your day.

Limiting yourself to doing one thing at a time is the best gift you can give yourself. When you focus on that one thing, you will accomplish it more efficiently, and the result will be better.

Identify today’s one thing.

There are any number of days in a week, month, year where you feel more like the Ping-Pong ball than the paddle. It’s all you can do just to keep your head above water. The suggestions in this article will help, but the tide can rise to tsunami levels at times, and even the best of efforts can’t get you ahead of the game.

A great way to squeeze a small sense of accomplishment and command out of the worst of days and weeks is to select the one thing you’re going to get done today. Then no matter how bad the day gets, you commit to getting that one thing done. The result will be evidence of forward movement on that day, along with a greater feeling of being in control of at least part of your day.

Spread priorities out.

“This is an ASAP!” “I need this NOW!” “Urgent, Highest Priority!” These are just some of the so-called deadlines that get thrown at you throughout the day. The fundamental problem presented here is that these deadlines lack specificity and clarity. Having searched long and hard, it can be stated without doubt that “ASAP” does not appear on any calendar published today.

This is what I call the “ASAP problem,” and it, and its cousins “Urgent” and “Now,” have become the default mechanism for establishing deadlines in the modern work environment. The reality is that most things aren’t that urgent. In fact, in almost every instance, when you deliver this project ASAP, it will likely languish on the desk you deliver it to for days, even weeks. So it really wasn’t that important.

Seek specific deadlines – dates and times – and spread them out over the course of the future accordingly. It’s easier to do this with work over which you have control and harder for work being assigned to you.

Whenever you next receive something that needs to be done ASAP, simply respond with a positive statement about the work and a query about whether “Tuesday at 3” would work. You’ll find that by placing a specific date and time on the deadline, the work giver will begin conversing in the same fashion.

By establishing specific deadlines and then spreading those out over the course of the near future, you regain command of your workload. That way, when someone next approaches you with an ASAP, you can clearly, and with a high degree of confidence, respond to them with a specific deadline option and begin the negotiation process to fit it into your day while also responding to their needs.

Conduct regular core dumps.

You have a lot of stuff in your head, and you are always thinking about it. Getting focused (and productive) is largely a function of quieting down your physical and mental space as much as possible. The idea behind a core dump is to take all the things popping up in your head and commit them to some form of record – a to-do list, an electronic task-management system, or something similar.

Once your mind knows that these items have been captured, it can let go of them and turn its full attention to what needs doing right now. Core dumps can be conducted anytime and anywhere. Whenever you find yourself repeating a series of things in your head, it’s a good time to take a brief moment and core-dump that list into a permanent record.

You’ll be surprised by how freeing this little behavior is. The weight of the world will lift from your shoulders, and you’ll be able to better focus on the “right now.”

Use full screens.

The use of multiple monitors at work has become common. In fact, one of my clients had five monitors on his desk and purported to work with all of them open all the time. Even those of us without the budget or authority to command multiple monitors on our desk will have multiple windows open at any one time.

Either way, this is a distraction-rich environment. Every time something changes on one monitor or window, your eye will be naturally drawn to it. This causes a distraction, however slight, that eats into your focus and productivity.

The sole exception to this rule – full screens on one monitor and eliminating the use of multiple monitors – is when you are aggregating information from multiple sources into a single source. Think of this exception as the “term paper” exception. When writing a term paper, the various source documents are researched and assembled. Then once writing has begun, those source materials are stacked up around you as you write. Using multiple monitors or partial windows on a single monitor is effective for this sort of effort.

Do one more (little) thing. The final tip for getting more command over tasks is to do one little thing at the very end of the day. Get in the habit of buttoning everything up and getting ready to go home and, before leaving the office, to do one more little thing – return a call, respond to a short email, put a file folder away.

Given that we work approximately 240 days a year, you can get 240 more little things done each year. Imagine if you got 240 more little things done this year than last year. That’s a lot of little things.

Following these tips will keep you focused and more productive. The cake will be that moment at the end of the day when you get just one more little thing done. You’ll leave the office feeling good about what you’ve accomplished.

The author is a time management coach. You can learn more about him at quietspacing.com.

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