In Chapter 2 of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg, Staffan describes how to create a short list of five items and then to push everything else to the “grass catcher” list. I have been working on using this approach this week with a special focus on capturing the date an item was added to the list and the stakeholder for the item. In the past, I trimmed my list on a quarterly basis. I use the dramatic approach of starting a new list saving only those items on my short list. This week I tried Staffan’s weekly approach, trimming off a few older items on a weekly basis. The date added is useful but what I found more useful was asking myself the question, “am I really going to do this or is this an aspirational item?” Cue the chainsaw; even though I started a new list on July 1st I was able to remove several items from my new grass catcher list.

Chapter 3 is titled Focus On One Task Now. A few weeks ago I facilitated a retrospective for a hybrid team that is struggling with the noise generated by having text chat constantly on. Whether recognized or not, the always-on chat channel is not friendly for focus. As an experiment, I turned on several of the chats that I am currently attached to, my Gmail and Outlook email notifications, AND the ringer on my phone (mostly text announcements). I then turned on my digital recorder and left the office to walk my dog (it killed me not to count my steps for posterity — there is a problem there, I recognize that).  When I reviewed the recording it was apparent why I was having a problem concentrating.  The cacophony of sound announcing the need for me to check a chat or text was eye-opening. Avoiding interruptions is critical for achieving focus and flow state. If allowed, turn off the notifications, define chat-free times, turn off the podcasts playing in the background (even the SPaMCAST), and other distractions for periods of time so that you can focus. Finding space to concentrate on the task at hand will improve your creativity and throughput. Staffan calls this space, “notification celibacy.” Note, I used the term “allowed” in a purposeful manner as many team agreements are now stipulating that members are available via chat during all core business hours. I even reviewed a contract that required the signatory to be available via chat at all times. Chat is being used as the new version of tethering rather than a tool for collaboration and coordination.

Focusing On Task Now is an instruction to do the most important item from your short list until it is complete (or blocked) or you hit a panorama cue (from Chapter 1) and panorama session when you look at the big picture and assess what is the most important thing you should be doing NOW. Doing one thing at a time is the exact opposite of multitasking and is nearly the opposite of its nearly nefarious cousin, task switching. Over the years, I have pointed out that multitasking and task switching (or fast switching) are urban myths, Steve Tendon in his book Tame Your Work Flow provides exercises to prove the point and Staffan provides a set of techniques that are useful to avoid multitasking. What else will it take to put a stake in this effectiveness vampire’s heart?  This leads me to my weekly experiment. 

My intent this week is to carve out an hour a day during business hours to concentrate by turning off all notifications (with proper notifications and negotiations).  As a remote worker, this seemingly simple act is both difficult and terrifying.  FOMO (fear of missing out) and the possibility that no one will notice are real feelings. Note, I did say during business hours. I already practice this approach during “my time” when I write and edit podcasts, but it is easy to reduce the noise in the wee hours.

Staffan quotes Peter Drucker early in the chapter, “Do first things first and do one thing at a time.” Taking the time to generate a short list every morning and then working it during the day provides a tool to figure out what should be first so that you can work those items first. Adding new items only when one is complete or adding new items when something else becomes more important (and then only by removing something else) helps to keep what is important in front of me at all times. Grabbing the most important item and getting it “to done” before I move on aligns with my agile sensibilities and aligns with Drucker’s thoughts. Practicing with the tools to help focus in environments that compete for your attention is critical whether in an office, remote or hybrid work environment. 

One last note this week, Staffan’s idea on the “volunteer hour” — time on the calendar designed to gather interruptions is a great idea.  I am still thinking about how to use this in a remote and hybrid environment. I am considering office hours or a study hall approach (a nod to Ben Woznicki for that idea). More on an experiment to test this idea later, now back to my ambient/trance music that I use to block out some of the potential distractions in my environment.

Have you bought your copy of  Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg?  

Previous Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg Entries

Week 1 – Logistics, Game Plan, and Preface 

Week 2 – Introduction 

Week 3 – Monotasking In A Nutshell 

Week 4 – Cut Down on Things to Do