Monotasking


Week 9 of our re-read of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg is the last numbered chapter, next week we will wrap things up.  This chapter really is about the self-care needed to be both effective and creative. There are a number of ideas in this chapter that if you’re not familiar with them are frankly just really good ideas. Many of the ideas in this chapter I have been using for years and some of the inferred issues I am still working on. Sleep is the biggest problem I struggle with.  

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This chapter struck several chords during both of my reads of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg. Staffan opens the chapter, Simplifying Cooperation, by pointing out that “effective communication gives you more discretionary time.” This is one of the principles underpinning most agile approaches. If you improve communication by making it as intimate as it needs to be you can reduce status giving and taking as well as at least some of the follow-ups and clarifications that seem to spin-off discussions.

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This week’s chapter of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg. is Progress Incrementally. I was first exposed to the idea of incrementalism and timeboxing by my mother while helping (or voluntold) with the housework. I would vacuum rugs for about 5 minutes, have the work inspected, and then, invariably do some rework before moving off to the next timebox. As a child, I just assumed you should get feedback early in the process. I later ran into timeboxes in Champy and Hammer’s book Reengineering The Corporation. The idea was a revelation in the work environment I was in at the time.  In both cases the duration timebox was different, but the message was similar. If you break work up into smaller pieces you can assess progress, get feedback, can change tact or do something more important (this is where I ask Lakein’s question – “What is the best use of my time right now?”) much sooner than if you wait until your think you are done. On top of all of those benefits, increments also help people and teams to achieve focus. This week I have succeeded in turning off all my interruptions (Slack, Text, Teams, Twitter, email, and others) as I am doing my monotasking sessions, a type of incrementalism . . . at least in the morning. I do pop many of those apps back on briefly at the end of each panorama session to make sure no emergencies have occurred. Afternoons are tough due to meetings and other hardscape activities, therefore I moved as many of my focus activities earlier in the day (as a morning person, this suits me) when I can quietly timebox.

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This week’s chapter of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg. is Never Procrastinate. I have been working on procrastination and overcommitting my whole life. Compared to my 7th-grade self I have made step changes.  Even compared to my 2020 self, I do a better job at avoiding procrastination and overcommitting.  My five short list begins with the admonition: 

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Finally, we have reached Chapter 2 of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg. It is ironic that a failure in my ability to control WIP in my personal life led to a two-week delay in delivering the re-read of this chapter titled, Cut Down on Tasks to Do. All the hand wringing aside, the delay has allowed me to reflect more on the chapter and to hone my use of the short-list and panorama cues and sessions. Long swaths of meetings still give me trouble, but getting the short list down to tasks that I missed in my first read of Chapter 2 has made a ton (imperial or metric) of difference. 

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This week we focus on Chapter One of Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg, which is titled Monotasking In A Nutshell. This chapter lays the foundation for translating the Five Axioms of Monotasking into a simple and straightforward approach. 

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The first chapter in  Monotasking by Staffan Noteberg is the introduction, titled The Five Axioms of Monotasking.  As a reminder, an axiom is a statement that is regarded as being established, accepted, or that is self-evident. These five truths form the foundation from which the book proceeds. Each of the five axioms Staffan identifies is useful individually if taken to heart and then used to shape how you work. As a whole they are powerful.

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This week is a doubleheader (baseball term for two games played by the same teams on the same day against each other). We begin our re-read of  Monotasking by Staffan Nöteberg and we have my interview with Staffan. Several years ago I read Staffan’s book on Pomodoro which changed how I work.  Monotasking might be even more useful and impactful.  We discussed how to apply the ideas in the book to improve focus, productivity, and quality of life.

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We start our re-read of Monotasking by Staffan Noteberg.  The book is 237 pages published by Racehorse Publishing (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) and was released in English on June 1, 2021. For most of the readers of the blog and listeners to the podcast, this will be an initial read. The book’s contents include a Preface, Introduction, seven numbered chapters, an Afterword, and then other stuff like index and more (we will not cover the other stuff but I am glad for the index and endnotes). This re-read will take between 10 and 11 eleven weeks barring disasters or absolutely perfect Saturdays. 

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Serial Mono-tasking In Action
Part Two of The Case Against Multitaking.
By Thomas M. Cagley Jr.

Audio Version of Part One
Audio Version of Part Two

Recap of Part One: True multitasking in the work place is rare at best.  Even when we think of fast-switching as a form of multitasking, multitasking lacks efficiency due to switching costs. If you decide to accept the cost of multitasking, the act of multitasking is — complicated. Complexity causes errors and makes more work which reduces effectiveness even more.

Serial mono-tasking with planning is a mechanism that can help minimize switching costs and complexity.  As noted in Part One of the essay, mono-tasking makes the most sense if efficiency and productivity are your goals. How we implement mono-tasking in the face of an interrupt-driven world is an open question.

Serial Mono-tasking In Action

I would suggest that any approach to dealing with tasks whether for a program, project or a personal to-do list must be based on a process that includes specific coping mechanisms.

Prioritization:   As noted in “The Case Against Multitasking”, having a few tasks queued up reduces switching time. Switching time is the time required for the person doing work to prepare to do the next task based on a new set of rules. As an example of these different rules, consider the rules and constraints you have in mind when writing an email to your significant other; now consider the constraints and rules you would have to keep in mind if writing an email to your boss (unless they are the same). Another example of a task with different rules would be coding a user-facing website as compared to loading a data warehouse table. Prioritizing tasks can serve three purposes:  The first is to minimize the differences between rule sets when switching (I will do all of my work email before updating Facebook) which will reduce the impact of switching. Secondly, prioritization at the team level provides the ability for the team to group (self-organization) the work so as to reduce rules and constraint differences between tasks. Thirdly, prioritization lets team members mentally prepare before the switch (another coping mechanism). Bottom line, prioritization is about tackling what is important first.

Isolation: Team environments tend to be noisy and interrupt-driven because IT personnel are nothing if not individualistic. Each person will have their own coping mechanisms. Find your own mechanism to block distractions; wear headphones, learn to focus, turn off IM for periods of time or consider working from home if possible. In other words, adapt to the environment without withdrawing or rejecting those around you. Remember that as noted in the first part of the essay, background noise does not have a substantive scientific basis so blasting “En da Godadiva” might not be a great idea.

Focus:  Filtering or blocking things out and focus are related but they are also different. Focus is about narrowing your consciousness to contemplate a specific topic. To aid in developing focus, avoid distractions; turn off IM, don’t check emails and in radical cases hide from team members (just for a little while).

Adjust:  When things don’t work out as you plan (and how many plans work perfectly?) make changes. Adjust both the process you are using and the environment to maximize your effectiveness (note, I did not say efficiency or productivity). Any process with human involvement is naturally chaotic requiring adjustments. One of the observations I have heard from studies of the Toyota Production System is that if a process is not being changed and adapted then it is not being used properly.

Process:  A system or a process is required to control the flow of work.  It would be difficult to prioritize and focus on a set of tasks and therefore to be productive if there was no control on how a task could enter or be accepted to be worked on.  Processes like Kanban, SCRUM and even the venerable waterfall methods all include mechanisms to control the flow of work and to decide on which items should be addressed and when.

A side note in the discussion of process, is that fully committing all resources on specific tasks in a project leaves no time for probems therefore is tantamount to enforcing overtime or to falling behind schedule. All processes must allow time for both the interruptions a corporate environment always has and the overhead of the workday (email, time accounting, non-project meetings, coffee, bathroom breaks . . .to name a few). One method suggested by many time management gurus is compartmentalization.  For example, blocking a period of time for heads down working followed by a window of time to read and return emails or phone messages.  The goal is to have a process that allows you to work as simply as possible. This means the process needs the ability to capture to-dos, categorize, prioritize and then track work to completion (which is exactly what backlog is for an agile project or a work queue in Kanban).

At a personal level have a process, prioritize your work, filter out distractions and focus on what is important.  Learn to postpone interruptions rather than switching. When interruptions can’t be avoided, shut down rather than just stopping what you doing to react.  Shutting down will minimize retooling when you restart. When the urge strikes to check email or jump back into Twitter, just say no, take a deep breath and try to refocus. At a personal level I am a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) and personal Kanban.

When working on projects, the multitasking problem can be addressed by adopting techniques that support serial mono-tasking with planning at a tactical level. Agile and Lean techniques are tailor-made for addressing this issue. Agile and Lean techniques have recognized the power of doing one thing at a time. Scrum and Kanban both feature isolation of tasks so that they are selected and disposed of in a serial manner.

Serial mono-tasking requires discipline to have a process and for you or your team to focus.  It does not mean slowing down, but it does mean making choices.  In many cases, rushing off to deal with interruptions gives the impression of importance but in the long run it probably makes your project late or reduces the quality of the product you deliver.

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