Thursday, March 27, 2003

Reducing Multitasking

Last week, Frank Patrick , writer of the excellent weblog Focused Performance passed along an article "Multitasking Makes You Stupid" which appeared a month or so ago in the Wall Street Journal. I commend both the article and Frank’s blog to you.

The article’s main point was how silly we are when we try to jump to a new task before completing the one we are working on. . Yes, we all know that, but seldom do anything about it. The article adds grounding to what we already know.

But, as my kids have heard me say ad nauseum "Knowing and doing are two different things."

So, last weekend, I concocted a small experiment for myself to try to actually do something. I assessed my performance during the previous week to be particularly lousy. Mulling where I was vulnerable to multitasking, I realized the crucial event triggering multitasking for me was email interruptions. Put another way, the constraint limiting my effectiveness was interrupting myself to read the email associated with the little yellow envelope in the lower right hand corner of my computer screen.

The experiment was thus: I would turn on my email software only three times a day, at 10am, 2pm and 4pm. I would respond to whatever was required and then turn it off. At other times, I would focus on key tasks and people.

I’m four days into it now. I have been amazed and pleased. Early observations:

  • I’m not missing anything. I don’t need to instantly respond to each email. I’ve only missed one event by having my software turned off. That was a request from my colleague in the office next to me. (and isn’t that why Al Gore invented the Internet, so that those sitting 12 feet away from one another can communicate?? )
  • I do better at email. I can respond to 10 of them very efficiently when I know that’s all I’m doing for the ten minutes allocated to email. Much better than I did before when I was multitasking more.
  • I’m getting important things done with fewer interruptions. Each day I’ve completed the important tasks I set out to do. It has been a totally different week.
All of which points out what we should expect to see when we attack a constraint, the limiting factor in some measure of throughput. In fact, the startling results validate my assessment last weekend that email interruptions were in fact constraining my effectiveness.

OK, I know four days does not a trend make, so I’ll keep you posted on this. However, I do encourage you to read the article on multitasking and ask yourself the question "What limits me?"

Thanks, Frank, for the lead on the article. I hope this brief discussion is helpful.

Feel free to forward to a friend. Email me

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