Saturday, October 16, 2010

Multitasking: a commitment to avoid that which is most important

Multitasking, by definition, removes attention from that which is most important. In a fantasy world of fixed tasks and infinite schedule, this works great. Fortunately for me, I live in the real world of priorities and deadlines.

A simplistic, but useful model:

1) Determine the most important task
2) Focus on the most important task
3) Complete the most important task
4) Go to step 1

Almost all interruptions will force a context switch, and all context switches force an implicit and natural restart at step #1: "Where was I at on that task again? Hrmm, oh yeah..."

Whenever I have problems with the above model, it's usually for a very small number of reasons:

The task was too large
I was unable to maintain focus for a sufficient period of time to complete the task. Natural interrupts, like sleep, result in context switches. This is usually not all that bad. Stopping for dinner, or for the night, gives a chance for my brain to rewire itself around the problem. The problem occurs when I restart at step #1 and determine that the most important task has changed.

The task was too complex
I was unable to keep the entire problem in my head at the same time. This causes internal multitasking and context switches within the scope of the "task". Solution: Keep tasks small, and try not to work on a problem I can't fit in my head.

External interruptions
Solution: Turn off email, phones, and IM for a while and focus on the task at hand. Let people know I'm focusing on the priority items, and for the next few hours, they are not my priority.

Whenever I hear someone brag about their multitasking skills, this is what I usually think:
- They apparently have no problem avoiding their high-priority tasks
- Or, they have no high priority tasks
- Or, they have a lot of menial tasks with low overhead/context switching costs
- Or, they're just full of shit

1 comment:

Alan said...

I'm late to the game commenting, but I googled and found you. :-p

I love this post (and totally agree).

I guess I say that I'm good at multi-tasking, but maybe what I mean is "I have lots of food on my plate". I also think it's a boiler-plate answer for the inevitable question. Employers & clients want to hear that you're a good juggler, but they probably haven't considered this formula.