I suck at multi-tasking

While lots of people rave about their ability to multi-task, I definitely do not. I suck at it. The more tasks on my plate—especially short-fuse time-sensitive tasks—the worse I become at it.  Throw a bunch of these at me at the same time, and I eventually blow my top and lash out at whoever is near me.  It’s not pretty.  And I hate myself when that happens.

A personal example

Just this morning, I started writing this multi-tasking article, which takes a lot of mental energy, when I received an urgent  call from a co-worker that lost data in Excel on iPad.  He lost something like 200 rows of data, despite it being set to autosave. So had to figure out an approach for recovering that, as it impacts a full day’s work of 2 people at a remote location. Then my cell phone went off, a business partner asking about a CRM tool he had a question about, and could I take a look at a different product he suggested.  Then my wife forwarded an email she received from our CPA about her real estate business, with tax deadline tomorrow (Sept 15 late filing).  Then I had to try to find a driller and private utility locator that could do a drilling job within the next week or so because a client doesn’t want to wait until October 4, even though it was their fault for waiting so damn long to let us know about this project.

All of these are urgent things, and writing this blog article is not urgent.   So guess what…the article goes to the backburner for now.  The issue for me is that all of this shit happened within 20 minutes, first thing this morning.  I don’t need to tell you how frustrating this is.

After handling the above as well as possible, now I have to get back into the zone to finish this article, which takes time to get back into it.

Linear is better

I’m a linear kind of guy.  I’d rather complete something before doing something else.  Especially when it comes to technical things.

And I’m not alone.  Most people work better linearly.  It has been shown that the human brain can only focus on one task at a time, and it takes about 20 minutes to fully recover from the mental fatigue of switching between two tasks. Studies have shown that the more tasks you’re juggling, the harder it is for your brain to concentrate on any single task.

Why is that?

Because getting into the “zone” is hard.  And once you are in it, if you have to switch to something else, you lose all of that momentum.  You will know when you are in the “zone”: time flies by, you get a lot of shit done, and don’t even notice the clock.  You blink, and 4 hours went by.

Now imagine being in the “zone” and having to switch gears to some other urgent but not important (in the big scheme of things) task.  Your focus has to change to whatever other urgent task is at hand.  And then when that’s done, now you have to go back to the other task and get back in the “zone”.  Sometimes it might take a good 20 minutes to get back in the groove.  And sometimes it’s a futile effort, unable to get back into it for the day.

The above is a classic example of switching costs, which are the costs associated from switching from one task to another.  These costs come in the form of sunk time, sunk effort, and performance drops.

One way to combat this…

Unfortunately we all have to multi-task to some degree, even me.  I combat this by using a physical kanban board.  Not a digital one.  An actual board.   Here’s a screenshot of the one I use.  It’s ugly, but functional.

Projects I work on at Mid-Atlantic follow a particular path:

  1. You first send out a proposal
  2. If the proposal is accepted, you schedule field work
  3. When field work is completed, you wait for the data to be produced/processed
  4. After the data has been analyzed and reviewed, you write the report
  5. After you complete the report, you bill the client
  6. If the project is reimbursable, you file a Trust Fund package

I use sticky post-it notes for each project, and move them from block to block (left to right) as a project progresses.  When I complete something, and have to wait for someone else to review it, I move that post-it to the “Waiting” row toward the bottom of the board.  Once it’s approved, I move it to the “Completed” row (if applicable), or move it to the next column. Eventually sticky post-it notes fall off the board entirely, which is the whole point…always moving a project forward, block by block.

Why it works for me

For me, when I get frustrated at all the interruptions…emails, text messages, people walking into my office, push notifications on my phone, and phone calls, I look at that board to re-center what’s most important.  Somehow just looking at that board relaxes me.  It only contains the most basic information, but just enough to understand what matters most that week.

How to apply this to anything

Start by breaking down a project or task into smaller tasks that can be done within a short period of time.  Figure out the most basic/fundamental tasks for whatever it is you do that is repeatable, and use those as column headers on your kanban board.  Then use sticky post-it notes to write down some basic details about your projects.  It could be anything…name of the project, due date, etc.  Something very basic.

A key factor in all of this is to make sure that sticky post-it notes don’t stay on that board forever.  If they are on there for too long, it can be a mental detriment to you getting that task done.  To avoid this, make sure that the tasks listed as columns on your kanban board are small enough that they can be done within a week or two.

There’s a ton of literature about agile processes. I’d encourage you to do some research if you find this kanban board example useful.

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