Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Multitasking Without Multitasking

We all have much to get done. If we didn't, I would not spend as much time as I do writing about productivity and how to accomplish goals. Then again, maybe that's just my projection as I try to do a ton of things and assume you do, too. And often, that crammed schedule may cause us to stray into what was once considered a valuable activity: multitasking.

I mean, with so much to do, it makes sense to work on multiple things at once, right? Wrong.

"But I'm good at multitasking," you might say. You're wrong. But don't believe me, go read a fun article by a neuroscientist from MIT (Earl Miller) explaining how your brain is wired against it. Multitasking will kill your productivity, from the inability to actually finish tasks to the wasted effort switching between them, to the lack of ability to focus and follow problems to creative rather than reactive solutions.

I'm terrible at multitasking, anyway, as something always gets dropped on the floor. Here are a few things I try to do instead.

Multiprojecting Over Multitasking

Just because we are not great at doing multiple things at the same time does not mean that we don't have multiple things we have to do. So I like to think of those as multiple concurrent projects, and then work on a particular project at a time.

It's probably semantics, but it fools me.

Instead of thinking about the minutiae of a single task that I am working on, which I could easily get distracted from, I ratchet it up a level and think about the project as a whole. I then can complete a few tasks on that project without constantly feeling pressure to jump over and switch to another project.

It doesn't always work. I still struggle and drop things and have to play cleanup, but it does make the time working on a particular project more productive. It also helps to give a drive to a finish occasionally, when I am getting close to the end of a particular project. I can put in just a little more effort and complete it out, which really gets your productivity amped for the next project on your list.

Respect The Flow

Multitasking breaks the "flow state," which causes your productivity to break down. When I was a software developer, I could get into coding a function or application feature and just keep going and going until it was completed. Sometimes I would be oblivious to everything going on around me and realize that I had been typing possibly for hours. I also felt that way when I wrote fiction, as words could just pour out of my head and onto the page and there were times when I would crank out over two thousand words per hour.

I find writing a bit more difficult now, because I need much more thought and analysis into what I am writing on a particular topic, and therefore, I can't just dump words onto a page like I could when I just described the world and events swirling around in my head.

But still I chase that flow.

The flow state will provide the highest level of performance, so I try to take steps to get myself into simply typing the words in my head as quickly as possible. For example, I try to plan out my writing session in advance and outline what I am going to say. That way, when the time comes to write, I just type out the thoughts as I work my way through the outline. I used to consider myself a "pantser" as in, I write by the seat of my pants, but now I am most definitely evolving into a "plotter" where every point is already thought up before the words hit the page. 

The result? I can sit down and write and write without taking a ton of breaks to plan what's next or scratch my head for example stories and narratives that drive home the thought I am trying to make. Because I already planned that.

Take whatever steps you can to try to get yourself into that flow state. If your job is one that you can crank out a ton of work if you are dedicated and focused, then this option is for you. Eliminate distractions and refuse interruptions. Don't start two tasks at once where something is bound to happen. 

I failed this test when I was writing something earlier today. The reason? I had boiled some eggs.

See, I put some eggs on to boil and then cut them off after a few minutes and went to sit down and write. But then a timer went off for me to get up and remove them from the heat and ice them down, so I did, lest they continue cooking past hard boiled to rubbery in that extremely hot water. By the time I got back, I had forgotten what I was writing. But I had left myself a clue in that I had been mid-sentence when I stood up, so I was able to pick back up where I left off. But even that illustrated to me the importance of not breaking that flow, as my writing had a slight stutter as I tried to get back into the zone.

But are you struggling staying in the zone? Put a fence around it.

Batch Batch Batch

To keep from getting sucked into the multitasking vortex, batch similar activities together and put guardrails around it to keep other thoughts and activities out of it.

Set time limits.

Put a clearly defined goal on your desired outcome.

Then work to crank that out.

I've talked before about separating planning from doing, like this article on social media planning, but the idea of batching goes well beyond that. Take similar activities even in the "doing" space and clump them together in a single time window.

For me, that means that the social media planning might be a 30 minute window where I crank out ideas. Some of that goes into this week's calendar, some into next week. Some might be parked four weeks out.

Where I am not as good is with batching writing. I have outlines for my next probably ten blog posts, but I tend to write in chunks and have not yet reached the batching of content like Mark Guberti describes in this blog post. It also doesn't help that I generally have time available in 30 minute blocks for batching, and not multiple hours, which is what it might take to create all content for the month. Still, the tips in that article are great and apply across the board.

Time limits are important not only because they will keep you from running over, but more because they provide an internal boundary to keep other tasks out until the time limit is up.

Basically, you can put any interruptions off, telling yourself, "That's not an emergency, I can get to it when I am done with this batch work in 18 minutes," or whatever it is.

Fences are meant to keep bad stuff out just as much as keeping good stuff in.

Not only do batch sessions allow you to create isolation between tasks, they help minimize the loss of productivity due to task-switching. I've heard this once referred to as "pick up and put down time." Basically, every time you switch from doing one task to another, there's a small bit of transition time lost, sometimes physical and always mental. Batching tasks keeps you in the same toolsets doing the same or similar tasks for longer and without the interruptions causing you to waste those transitions.


In the end, you might not be able to get everything done. That isn't the outcome you're looking for, but sometimes it's the outcome you get. So make sure you are working on your highest priority projects first.

Seems simple, but sometimes the highest priority is also the highest level of work, which can cause you to avoid it.

Don't procrastinate important things.

Look, by reading this, you now will stop procrastinating, right? Wrong. Just hearing "don't procrastinate" won't make you stop, but taking your own perspective and framing importance can help you prioritize correctly.

We all have a ton to do. That's already a given. But if you have five hours to do eight hours worth of work, you have to make it count. And the way you do that is focusing on the biggest return for the time.

What do you get out of completing your projects? You should know that and have an idea of their relative value. Spend your quality time on the important projects to make the biggest impact.

Getting It Done

In the end, any work strategy has to find a way to compensate for having too much to do in too little time.  While you can find all types of tips and tricks to help, the most important way to maximize your productivity is to avoid waste.

Waste appears in form of task-switching time, interruptions, and dead spots.

Working to prioritize your work effectively, block out time to batch similar activities, and then push yourself until you can get into the flow of producing can certainly help reduce that waste. I'd love to hear your feedback and ideas, so feel free to shoot them my way.