It isn’t possible to multi-task

I am going to start by saying something that many might find a tad controversial: multi-tasking is a myth!

Some might say that only women can multi-task and that, as I am a man, I am just unable to master it myself. I wouldn’t want to address that point specifically but what I can say is that from experience I am pretty good at jumping between tasks and keeping a pretty good handle on things, but I have not yet met anyone who can literally multi-task and be productive.

At Siteset we have been thinking about productivity and the plethora of tasks that many of the staff have to jump between. It poses quite a problem in our environment because, by the nature of what we do, we are often pulled from pillar to post on a daily basis. In retrospectives, our project managers talk about how it is difficult to feel they’re making any headway when they have so much to focus on. Either communications with clients suffer or the attention to the detail of the work we’re developing suffers. Quite simply, they feel like they’re having to make a choice between two key areas of their jobs. Similarly, our developers have cited how being pulled off a task to quickly deal with something else, say an urgent issue, pulls them out of the ‘zone’ and disrupts their ability to get things done.

So, what about this mysterious ‘zone’? We’ve all felt it. When we get into a piece of work and our brain has zoned in so that we are completely focussed. We get to an optimal operational point where we seem to be flying and that is the sweet spot – productivity at its peak. It is a nightmare if we are disturbed when we’re in that zone and it is horrible then trying to refocus again once we’ve been disturbed. Our developers particularly talk about how long it can take to get back into the detail once they have been distracted, which is a major problem if there are distractions all of the time.

If being disturbed from our ‘zone’ is unproductive then multi-tasking is going to be a real problem. By its nature, trying to concentrate on more than one task at a time means that we can’t be in the detail. And similarly, doing one task quickly and then another, followed by another, is a series of disturbances rather than sitting and focussing on something for a consolidated period of time. Both are unproductive approaches which are going to reduce the quality and throughput of work. Not to mention above all the other problems, with constantly flipping between tasks, you have the risk of burnout simply because your brain is constantly going at a million miles an hour trying to keep up with everything and not being allowed to just settle on one stream of thought for a few moments.

In an environment where distractions happen regularly, how can we control our work so that we can minimise being pulled out of the zone and thus keep productivity at a high level? We have been experimenting with a number of techniques:

  • Goal based sprint management
  • Continuous delivery in Devops
  • Time boxing of tasks

We will be focussing on all of these in future blogs, but we have found that these are proving to be effective ways of focussing people over periods of time.

What about my statement about how multi-tasking is a myth? Well, I stand by that. It is not possible, in my opinion, to do multiple things at the same time and do them well – even if you are a woman. But what is possible is to manage your time effectively to deal with multiple things in a relatively short period of time. The key to this is ensuring that adequate time is set aside for each task, so that in a short period of time you can focus on that one thing, deal with it properly, and then move on to the next one. This minimises distractions and maximises productivity, which we have found as quite significant results.

For more information on how we’re working on improving focus and productivity, through the employment of some of the techniques mentioned above, keep an eye out for further blogs.

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