You may develop applications that can multitask — do two or more things at the same time — but you probably feel the pressure when you need to deal with multiple projects simultaneously. You aren’t alone. The human brain, unlike your software applications, can only do one thing at a time. The best humans can do is quickly switch from one task to another and back again, kind of like a juggler, to keep everything moving where it needs to be. As the American Psychological Association points out, though, this can take a real toll on productivity. You lose time during the transition from one task to the next and then, usually, you lose time by performing the second task less efficiently. Researchers conclude that a person can lose up to 40 percent of their time due to shifting between tasks.
When Multitasking Isn’t an Option
But whether or not you have to perform the human version of multitasking, switching from task to task, isn’t usually within your control. Do any ISVs have the luxury of days when they just work on one thing? Can you really tell clients with urgent requests that they have to wait? Can you tell the scrum master you want to pass on the standup meeting today? Is it feasible to not look at your email all day long? Realistically, the best we mere mortals can do is learn to manage our days better to minimize the disruption caused by the constant battle for our time and attention.
Here are some ideas that can help you take back some of that lost 40 percent of productivity in your day:
- Close email. A new email is often an instant distraction. It may only be a newsletter or marketing email, but when you click, you notice you have additional emails in spam, so you review and delete those. Then you notice an email you saved from the previous day and respond to it. Before you know it, 20 minutes have gone by — and email could distract you several more times in the day. Put yourself on a schedule for checking email, maybe first thing in the morning, near midday, and during the last hour of the day, so you can prevent this distraction during the rest of the day.
- Plan communications with your team. If your status on messaging is “available,” you may open the door to questions or comments from coworkers. Remember to indicate your status has changed to “busy” when you want to limit interruptions. And put your smartphone away, too. If you must keep a line of communication open with your team, come up with a plan that will help everyone stay on task when they need to. For example, when your messaging app says you aren’t available, have team members email you to request a brief meeting as soon as you are free. Reciprocate by respecting their schedules as well.
- Close windows and browser tabs. Is it really necessary to keep everything open while you work? You may think it will save time to not have to open the shared doc again to enter a value, but if it’s distracting you the whole time it’s open, it’s affecting your productivity. It will take less time to double click later when you need it than keep reading updates as they appear.
- Group similar tasks. Do you have three phone calls to make today? Try to schedule them back to back rather than peppering your day with stops and starts to make those calls. On the other hand, it may be more efficient to make a call, do a related task, make another call, do a related task, etc. Take control of your schedule and make a plan that works best for you.
- Backup your memory. You may be pressed for time, but no one is going to give you a pass if you make a mistake or let something fall through the cracks. Don’t put your memory to the test by trying to keep everything straight in your head, especially when you feel stressed. Make recordings, take notes, or snap a photo of the whiteboard so you have the information when you need it, without totally relying on your memory.
- Slow down and take breaks. Cranking out work on three different projects in record time will be no great accomplishment if it’s all wrong. Acknowledge that humans need time to switch from task to task, that you are human, and that doing it right now will save time correcting it later.
The Upside of Multitasking for ISVs
Even though multitasking can adversely affect productivity, there can be some benefits. Research from Columbia Business School reveals that switching tasks can increase creativity by reducing “cognitive fixation,” which occurs when you become too focused on one idea. Multitasking can break that focus and help you see things from different perspectives, resulting in greater creativity. The research shows that those study participants who alternated between two creative tasks performed better than participants who focused first on one and then on the other.
Make a Multitasking Plan that’s Right for You
Dealing with a busy schedule takes some planning, but insist on a plan that’s right for you. Everyone has different learning and work styles, and it will take self-awareness, and probably some trial and error, to find a way to make it through your day most productively. Take control of a hectic schedule by planning your day and limiting distractions — and then achieve more than you ever thought you could.