Multitasking


Getting work done is directly related to focus.

Getting work done is directly related to focus.

The discussion of hyper-connectivity and the techniques to combat the downside of hyper-connectivity has convinced me that in many cases we are dancing around the bigger workplace issue of how can you stay focused on delivering real business value in an environment that seems to be designed to promote making incremental progress on lots of projects rather than getting any one of them done. For those that are not steeped in the theory of lean, that translates to making progress on lots of tasks without finishing the bigger project to which the tasks belong. This focus on activity might be an artifact of workplace cultures that have been downsized and are attempting to get more done with less or the management by objective type behaviors that foster generating silo behaviors. Regardless of workplace I have observed this type of behavior different national cultures. For example, in conversations with Brazilian and Indian friends they have told me the same story of having to juggle multiple priorities and finding it difficult to stay focusing. The causes of the problem include: the after effects of downsizing, a belief in multitasking, lack of prioritization or plain poor management. These are important to understand for a long-term solution, however in the short-term, tactics are needed to generate focus in order to get into the flow! A few of the techniques I use or have been shared to help generate focus include:

  • Organize your workspace to avoid distractions – Clutter is not your friend. My desk is a hodgepodge of pictures, magazines waiting to read, piles of paid bills, several monitors, hard drives, microphones and an audio mixer. All sorts of cool and interesting stuff that screams for attention. I don’t do work that requires focus in my office anymore. The dining room table that no one uses provides an austere environment that promotes focus. I go back to my office to play.
  • Prepare to focus – A friend that writes for a living suggested that you have what you need close at hand before you start on a task. In other words, get that cup of coffee, tea or water before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Preparation includes making sure you laptop is plugged in or has a charge and literally visiting the bathroom upfront.
  • Have a routine – Frameworks like Scrum or Kanban have a very specific, built-in routine. Each project, release, sprint and day begin with a planning exercise. Time management technique like Getting Things Done (GTD) include planning specific next steps as soon as the previous step is completed. In recent Slate Working Podcast titled The “How Does a Cartoonist Work?” Edition, David Plotz interviewed Washington Post cartoonist, Tom Toles. Mr Toles said that he learned early on that routine was required to continually generate creative content. Routine liberated him from have to think deeply about mundane decisions that needed to be made on a day basis, allowing more time to be work on what really delivered value.
  • Plan – A corollary to having a routine. Plan and re-plan as needed. If nothing else, spend the first few minutes of every day planning the day ahead, and then re-plan as “stuff” happens.
  • Share your “rules” – If you work in a team and you are going to try techniques like the 20 minute sprint or the two email rule, let your friends, co-workers and boss know what you are doing. Also consider asking for their support in enforcing the techniques (thanks to Mauricio Aguiar for the addendum).
  • Airplane mode – While listening to an introduction to a speaker at the Brazilian Metricas 2014 conference, the conference chair suggest to the audience that turning their phones on airplane mode was a better choice than setting their phones to silent.  Airplane mode would ensure they were not interrupted so that they could pay proper attention.  Point well made.

In a response to Hyper-connectivity and The Illusion of Progress, Gene Hughson stated “The illusion of importance also applies in that the need for constant connection can be a conceit – “I’m too important to be out of touch, even for a minute”.” That conceit can lead to a reduction in productivity and effectiveness that hurts everyone. Re-focusing on focus requires sacrificing some of the distractions that make us feel that we are at the center of the importance universe (at least for 20 minutes at a time).

The genie of hyper-connectivity is not going to go back in the bottle, and moving to a mountain deep in the woods is not a career enhancing solution (unless you are writing a novel).

The genie of hyper-connectivity is not going to go back in the bottle, and moving to a mountain deep in the woods is not a career enhancing solution (unless you are writing a novel).

All the activity that is generated in a hyper-connected world can lead to the illusion of progress, to an illusion of importance and to force ineffective multitasking. Trying to put the genie totally back in the bottle would be difficult at best, since hyper-connectivity can be useful in the right circumstances. Measured steps can be used temper the some of the more problematic attributes of hyper-connectivity.

  1. Electronics free meetings. Specify some meetings as laptop and cell phone closed. Remove the potential distraction of the texting, email and other work by using the nuclear option. Recently I participated in a meeting that had a diverse set of participants most with different cultures and first languages. All of the participants were asked to close their laptops. Participation in the group increased even though one or two “members” were very reticent. While there were exceptions for long meetings, such as more frequent break to check in with the electronic masters or allowing the person with a kid at home sick to have an exemption, cutting the cord in meetings seems to have merits. In response to the article Hyper-connectivity and The Illusion of Progress, Chris noted:

I’ve been saying (and promoting) this for years as well. In a previous role, with Software Configuration Management, Build & Release, and QA Engineers reporting to me, I mandated that our weekly, short, team meetings were spend untethered to smart phones and laptops, except for the person charged with taking team notes. Very effective!

  1. Twenty minute sprints. Turn off the connections (think airplane mode) for twenty minutes. At the end of the twenty minute period turn them back on, open Outlook and read/respond for 5 – 10 minutes then repeat. I will admit that I am a connectivity addict, but this has become one of my favorite techniques to reduce connectivity distractions. I have settled on the twenty-minute rule because the time frame is long enough that I can get real work done and short enough not induce panic from being cut off. Note, I have modified the rule to allow going to the internet to look up a fact or to find a synonym (if I am not in my office with a paper thesaurus). The sprint technique has been used at more macro level in some organizations with days without email or meetings.
  2. Don’t reply to emails after hours. Compartmentalize your work and home lives when possible. Some companies such as the Volkswagen, Puma and BMW have tried this technique in an attempt to reduce the burnout hyper-connectivity can generate. I have not found any data to suggest the technique has been effective and obviously there are a few issues that are critical enough to require a response (FYI . . . I suggest picking up the phone and calling someone in those circumstances). This technique help create separation between home and work life and slow down the the expectation of immediate actions and responses.  .
  3. The Two-Email Rule. If a discussion or issue spans two emails or text messages, call the person or persons involved in the discussion and talk. I personally have begun to try to implement this rule and have found it very effective in reducing text or emails being volleyed back and forth without resolving anything. When emails are being volleyed back and forth it seems like the progress is measured by passing the issue on rather than resolving it. The biggest issue I have found is that in some circumstances people are using the volley technique to avoid having difficult conversations.

The genie of hyper-connectivity is not going to go back in the bottle, and moving to a mountain deep in the woods is not a career enhancing solution (unless you are writing a novel). There are a number of techniques that can create an oasis in the communication storm. You can practice some of these  techniques individually and change your own behavior.  When you are working on a team, change will require a vision of the future and leadership to make even incremental changes to how work is done by the team.

3524125987_298260aede_b

I recently attended a meeting and after about ten minutes I was brought up short.  Everyone was paying attention; not one laptop was open nor was anyone reading an email or text under the table.  People were taking notes “old school way”— on paper. The meeting ended on time after 25 minutes, meeting the objective and with the promise of meeting minutes.  I was shocked by the efficiency and effectiveness, and as a result I lingered after the meeting to discuss my observations with my sponsor.

Why is the more typical behavior to be tethered to multiple devices while juggling several projects or tasks? It is more than just a new corporate culture; rather our need for connectedness is based not just on how we see each other, but on how we see ourselves.  Our behavior is grounded in a combination of interlocking facts, self-knowledge and illusion. The keystone illusion that drives this need for hyper-connectedness is the illusion of control. The Illusion of control that we embrace allows us to believe we can script our progress through our career and that we can understand and predict the future like some sort of omnipotent being. In order to build that illusion of control we need build on three basic separate and distinct illusions. Each of these illusions is self-reinforcing.

Returning to my “old school” example, my sponsor indicated that recently meetings at her company were a mirror of many other organizations, lots of hardware and lots of miscommunication. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a senior management session where the CIO was asked the same question twice in less than five minutes.  The CIO levied a $50 fine for an open laptop that is not being used for the projector or the use of a cell during one of his meetings.  Extreme?  Even without the fine, the behavior change filtered through the organization. My sponsor indicated that the meetings had become shorter, as a result, and more effective and happened less frequently.

Passing aside what, without measurement, might be just the party line, why is this an important discussion?  Because once upon a time answering email during a meeting would have been viewed as rude. None of this would make any difference if there weren’t consequences. The whole hyper-connectedness, which has permeated even our most private spaces, causes us to spread our attention, our greatest asset, too thinly. Fractional attention makes you think that we’re progressing; it makes us think that we are important; it makes us think that we can multitask. In reality, fractional attention means that we actually get less done. The three illusions that are required to support the illusion of control are the illusion of progress, the illusion of multitasking and the illusion of importance.  Each of this can be issues in their own right, but together they shape how we behave.

First, the illusion of progress
Focusing on activities such as starting many tasks, participating in many projects or simply texting and answering emails while pretending to listen at a meeting gives an illusion of making progress. The thought is that we can switch in between these activities when we get downtime so that we can perfectly fill our day and be highly effective and efficient.  In reality, we are masking issues by confusing being busy with effective progress.

Second, the illusion of multitasking
In past essays I have dealt with this topic. We don’t multitask; we fast switch. Additionally, lean theory tells us that trying to split our attention between multiple tasks increases the possibility of doing none of them well.  In the work place, true multitasking is rare.  The data shows that generally humans are not really very good at true multitasking in the workplace. Linda Stone noted in the Huffington Post that people tend to stop breathing while they answer email. She even named the malady email apnea. If you need more examples just reflect on the data concerning cell phone usage and driving. Or if data doesn’t work for you, then try writing code while answering emails. Computers, on the other hand, are really good at multitasking and no matter the number of processors we have on our desktop we have not crossed that chasm to become full cyborgs yet . . . or perhaps that will be the outcome of hyper-connectedness.

Last, the illusion of importance
Hyper-connectivity has both positive and negative traits.  It allows us to connect with people and teammates across the globe, a positive except losing a few hours of sleep here or there. Advocates argue that this promotes greater collaboration and facilitates the sharing of ideas.

But it has a darker side in that it can lead us down deep rabbit holes through the implied urgency that each new message creates.  It can also make small issues appear larger and more influential than they really are which again demands our attention.

In a recent talk at Ted, Sherry Turkle stated that hyper-connectivity, with the problems it creates, has become more pervasive than just in a few meetings.

People text or do email during corporate board meetings. They text and shop and go on Facebook during presentations People talk to me about the important new skill of making eye contact while you’re texting.  People explain to me that it’s hard, but that it can be done. Parents text and do email at breakfast and at dinner while their children complain about not having their parents’ full attention. But then these same children deny each other their full attention.

Our electronic tools have been presented to us with the promise of delivering an ability to more closely integrate networks so that tasks, issues, changes, gossip and noise never fall through the cracks.   Content is always available. How many of you sleep with your smart phones next to the bed (or closer) just in case something you need to know happens during the night. Frankly, few of us are that important. However, instant and indiscriminate communication provides an illusion of importance, which reinforces the need to share information as well as to seek it. The act of constant foraging for data makes it difficult to focus on the speaker in a meeting or even responding to an important text message.

 

note (1)Is a good idea for teams to work on more than one project at once?  The logic leading up to the question usually begins with a statement like, “Our team is 15% on project A, 40% percent on project B and 45% on project C.  Being fully loaded makes us more productive, right?” Before I answer I generally have to take a deep breath, otherwise I tend to build up quite a head of steam. The simple and easily provable answer is no (the Multitasking Name Game drives the point home nicely). I am sure there are special circumstances where the answer is yes, however I have never seen that circumstance in the workplace.  Multitasking, switching costs and potential bottlenecks will all conspire to make this behavior inefficient and probably ineffective.  The problem is that both individuals and teams conflate the idea of being really busy with being highly productive.

Focused, dedicated teams generally reflect the following attributes:

  • They have a common goal that provides direction.
  • They tend have fewer cross purpose conflicts resulting from deciding which project is more important at any point in time when bottlenecks occur.
  • They can plan their work more easily, which reduces project multitasking. This, in tern, will yield an increase flow of work through the team.
  • They tend to be more efficient due to less switching between tasks to support multiple projects.

Much of the benefit of single threading projects comes from the efficiency gains generated by planning and organizing the work so that team members are effectively utilized and work flows through the process without stopping. Multitasking at either an individual or team level reduces efficiency.  Focusing on one goal at time is significantly more efficient, however it does effort for planning. Here again, focusing on one project at a time reduces the overhead of planning.

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.

Audio Version:  SPaMCAST 167

To multitask or not to multitask, that is the question.  Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of mono-tasking or to take arms against a sea of trouble and by opposing do more…at least appear to do more.  Is the discussion of mono-tasking versus multitasking a tempest in a teapot, a true productivity killer or perhaps are we really discussing how we segment work?  Depending on how you define the word, I believe it is the later.  The problem is that like so many other words we have conflated a number of concepts into a broader idea.

In my opinion, there are three common scenarios that get conflated into the term multitasking:

  1. Actively doing two or more things at once (breathing and talking).
  2. Actively doing one thing while passively doing another (writing this essay while listening to the radio).
  3. Switching between tasks related, unrelated or loosely coupled (rotating between reading a book and updating Facebook).

The formal definition from the Merriam Webster dictionary defines multitasking[1] as “the performance of multiple tasks at one time.”  This fits scenario one and two (to a less extent) but definitely not three.

In the work place, true multitasking is rare.  It is not that we humans can’t multitask because we can multitask even using the strictest application of the definition of the word.   We are good at multitasking when it is a combination that includes an autonomic task (like breathing, heart beating or sweating) and something more active such as chewing gum or when it includes accidents such as the combination of talking on a cell phone while driving and running into the back of my car. The data shows that generally humans are not really very good at true multitasking in the workplace. Linda Stone noted in the Huffington Post[2] that people tend to stop breathing while they answer email. She even named the malady, email apnea. If you need more examples just reflect on the data concerning cell phone usage and driving or if data doesn’t work for you then try rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Computers, on the other hand, are really good at multitasking and no matter the number of processors we have on our desktop we have not crossed that chasm to become full cyborgs yet.

The second scenario termed multitasking is a bit of a nuance: actively performing a task while passively performing another.  A classic example of this form of multitasking is reading a book while the radio is playing in the background.  In many cases this form of multitasking is an attempt to manipulate the work environment to aid focus.  The question of whether background noise affects concentration has been often studied.  In the January 2010 edition of the Scientific American, the magazine noted that background or low-level noise often disrupts people’s concentration[3]. Whether background noise helps or hurts concentration is probably one of brain wiring.   During the Christmas holiday I observed my son-in-law who can concentrate for hours but zones everything else out and my youngest daughter who requires multiple simultaneous inputs to get into flow state.  One for background noise and one against, maybe everyone is different.  At any rate, the data suggests that even on as basic a level as the having the radio on while reading, multitasking generally does not improve focus and efficiency.  By the way, if you are one of those that require background noise to concentrate, I recommend good headphones.

 

The final scenario generally conflated with multitasking is switching between multiple tasks.  This scenario is also known as fast-switching or serial mono-tasking.  Switching is in reality the juggling of resources to accomplish a set of tasks; at a macro-level you might be multitasking; however, on a micro-level you are mono-tasking.  The issue with this type of behavior is that juggling is not always easy even if you are good at it.  Inefficiencies are caused by both the queuing/scheduling of tasks and then the retooling that occurs when switching between tasks. During my research for this essay I found that in the brain, juggling multiple tasks is performed by mental executive processes that manage the individual tasks and determine how, when, and with what priorities they get performed[4]. The executive process coordinates activities so that the right outcomes occur, an analogy for what is going on inside of our minds is the air traffic control system.  The air traffic control system makes sure planes get where they are going with a minimum of delay and without two planes trying to use the same spot in the sky at the same time (bad). The coordination of tasks requires a level of overhead, just think about coordinating schedules for shared project resources if you need proof that overhead is required. However, more significant inefficiencies occur when a person switches between tasks.  Task switching experiments have shown a need for the person switching tasks to take time and mental resources to reorient. The reorientation tax (the amount of effort you need to expend to switch tasks) goes up with task complexity, lack of familiarity of the next task and the relative differences between the tasks.  Research has shown that task queuing (lining tasks up in order of precedence) so that the person doing the work can know what is coming and /or can influence the order they are to be done, can be used to reduce the impact of switching[5].  Reduction in the impact of switching can be mediated by separable executive control processes that prepare systemically for transitions between successive tasks[6].  The issue with the fast switching brand of multitasking is that in many cases the queuing of tasks is not as seamless as it should be which creates wait-states or multiple re-tooling situations because work does not flow as cleanly as it is diagramed on the Microsoft Project schedule (this is one of the reasons Reinertsen indicates that full allocation reduces efficiency).  Please note I am not comparing this type of multitasking to taking breaks between tasks to clear the “buffers” which has been shown to be valuable.

The data suggests that a mono-tasking environment that reduces interruptions is the most efficient work scenario[7]; however, the work environment is rich in interruptions.  Further according to Capers Jones, the information technology field has more named specialties than any other profession which means that individuals are spread across more project teams so they can practice their specialty.  Switching between projects leads to the switching tax we mentioned earlier.  Switching between tasks and projects is firmly etched into the classic project management body of knowledge based on 19th century manufacturing thinking (it’s now the 21st century).  We have even gone as far as to building the scheduling of shared resources into our project management tools which suggests that getting rid of the problem will not happen in the near future.  Today’s working environment leaves us with few options as methodologists.  Our goal must be to avoid switching when possible, minimize the impact when we can’t and then to decide to live with what we can’t change.

 

Next . . . A plan to address at least part of the problem

 

 


[4] Choices, Choices: Limits of the Brain, Anthrostrategist  Blog, August 28, 2011 (referenced December 17, 2011)

[5] Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4),763-797.

 

[6] Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4),763-797.

 

[7] Multitasking and Monotasking: The Effects of Mental Workload on Deferred Task Interruptions, Dario D. Salvucci and Peter Bogunovich, PDF, https://www.cs.drexel.edu/~salvucci/publications/Salvucci-CHI10.pdf, December 12, 2011, p1