Multi-tasking is a subject I’m passionate about. Passionate about NOT doing actually, whenever possible. Let me start by identifying two types of multi-tasking, bad and required.
Bad multi-tasking is working on two things simultaneously, or switching between things because something else is suddenly urgent, but not important enough to justify dropping everything you are working on. Many of us never stop to think about it though, we automatically equate urgency to priority. Just because something seems urgent doesn’t mean you should drop everything. Remember Mr. Covey’s 4 quadrants:
If you switch from a task you are working on in Q1 or Q2 for the sole purpose of working on something in Q3 or Q4, you’ve participated in bad multitasking. The same goes if you switch from Q1 to Q2. Aside from task switching, if Q3 and Q4 really aren’t that important, do you really need to do them in the first place?
Things become urgent when you’ve got someone on the phone, etc. Many times you can write that task down to work on it later, and continue working on your important task.
I try not to multi-task whenever possible. Some exceptions include when I’m just burned out on something and need to switch in order to get my brain engaged, or when something urgent and important comes to light. I call this required multi-tasking. Even then, I do what I can to work on a task from start to finish.
Some techniques I use daily:
- I only check my email 2 or 3 times a day max. If it’s urgent, they’ll call me. I also went into the options on my email client (Outlook) and disabled the notification options. I don’t want to know when a new email comes in, it’s too tempting a distraction.
- Post-It notes are evil. Put it in your task list, contacts, or calendar immediately. You don’t need the yellow freak staring at you all day saying, “don’t pay attention to what you’re working on, think about me instead!”
- I schedule everything I know about ahead of time. Time to respond to email is specifically scheduled in my calendar.
- Every task of any significance goes into my calendar. Hard at first, easy now that it’s a habit. This allows me to table things that aren’t in Q1 with a concrete plan to get them done. It’s like a mini project for every task, takes about 15 seconds to schedule and then I can get back to my current focus without losing my train of thought.
- When someone comes over to my desk or calls me asking for something, if it’s not a Q1 task I schedule it instead of dropping everything to work on it right then.
TOC and Critical Chain are focused on eliminating multitasking for the bottlenecks. In your personal time management, you are the bottleneck! There’s only one of you. See the figures below for some explanations of how decreasing multi-tasking can help shorten your lead times to get things done, and save overall time in the process.
For me personally, there’s another huge benefit. When I got serious about not multi-tasking, my stress level at work dropped dramatically. The act of trying to juggle things at the same time and/or switching from this to that was killing my creativity and brainpower, and left me completely zapped at the end of the day. No more. I actually like my job now.