Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lessons from Project Management - Multitasking

The Cult of Multitasking

Multitasking - Helping You Get MORE things Unfinished




My wife loves multitasking, many others out there seem to as well. There's this idea that by doing only one thing at a time, you're really not being as productive as you could be. In reality, multitasking just ensures you finish tasks later, and have more things partially finished than if you focused on completing one task at a time.

Let's use an example, say you are organizing your home and you have four areas that need organizing, the: living room, bathroom, garage and kitchen. Let's say each area takes 4 days worth of effort. Below is a Gannt chart that shows progress over time for two different people completing the same set of four tasks.



Dave, starts one room, focuses on it completely, and then moves to the next.
Dodo, splits his/her time across all four rooms equally, spending 25% of each day working on each room.

As you can see, after 8 days in, Dave has finished two areas while Dodo hasn't finished anything. Dodo doesn't get anything finished until 16 days have passed.

While this is a simple example, there are a few things it doesn't factor in that make multitasking even worse. If you're working on something, don't you find it takes some initial mental energy as well as time to get back into it? In our simple example, we haven't factored in that Dodo has to walk to each of the four areas, everyday! David has to go only go into one area, and has 1/4 of the travel time Dodo does.

In the real world there are also consequences to things taking too long, a simple example (and something that caught me recently) is library books. If you take out multiple books, read them simultaneously, but can't finish all of them before they have to go back you are out of luck.

Multi-Tasking + Procrastination = Never ever get anything finished!

Whenever you start something new, it's exciting, it's (by definition) new, you're engaged and happy to work on it. As time passes, you may grow bored, or less interested and spend less and less time. It's easy to procrastinate and switch to another task, but maybe you'll never switch back? You can justify to yourself that you're "busy", because you're working on something else. The above simple example assumes that Dodo can keep interested in organizing all four rooms, for 16 straight days. What happens if the Dodo can't? Instead Dodo partially finishes each room, before moving to new areas of the house, leaving a trail of partially finished work.

Taking Action! Stop the scourge of Multi-Tasking

Being reminded of this in a PM course, finding more than a few blog posts that weren't finished, and having to return several library books unfinished, has galvanized me to stop multi-tasking.


My aim is to divide my personal tasks into two categories: maintenance, and development.

Maintenance tasks are things like doing dishes, cooking, cleaning, socializing and emailing. These are tasks that need to be done on a regular basis, and can't be put off for long periods without negative consequences. If the dishes aren't done, the house will be a mess and my wife will file legal action. If I don't cook breakfast daily, I'll be hungry, etc.

Development tasks are things which can be put off and for me area tasks like reading, writing blog entries, working on a PM course, writing an app, home improvement, misc-hobbies, etc. These tasks are not critically time sensitive.

From now on, any time I spent on "Development" tasks, will be completely focused on one item, until that item is completely done or there is no possible way to continue working on it. For example, if for my course I complete my portion of a group assignment and send it off for editing, then I may switch to another task. However, if I start reading a book, I will not do anything else until that book is completely finished.

We'll see how this works, but after focusing on tidying up a group assignment, and getting this blog finished (even when tired after working late on Friday, and wanting to procrastinate and start a new book), I already feel like I'm completing more than I was before.

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