Need an illustration of multitasking? This Jackie Gleason video could fill the bill.
Posts Tagged ‘multitasking’
In our time-conscious world, we’re used to thinking in terms of dates. What’s my calendar for today? When is the meeting, the doctor’s appointment, the television program? We rush to meet our deadlines.
Sometimes we think in terms of how long things will take or how much work there is, but that’s usually in order to figure out when they’ll be done so we can schedule other things. Mowing the lawn will take about two hours, so if I start at 1:30 I may still have time for a beer before the football game. I may leave a few minutes extra to get to my doctor’s appointment or plane flight, expecting I can bring my laptop or reading and get some work done if I have extra time. The main thing is not to miss those dates.
This conditioning naturally extends to the workplace. We’re tempted to nail down tasks and projects to dates. And people want those commitments from us, because dates and budgets – especially improbable ones – are easy to measure and lend a wonderful sense of urgency. Meetings, with their invincible timings – even in companies where everyone knows to arrive fifteen minutes late – lend a comforting air of firm accomplishment to the unpredictability of actual work.
Date-driven cultures don’t start out that way; they evolve. Imagine a startup company with only one or two new products. There are small teams and good communication; everyone has a strong sense of urgency to get the products out the door. There is great focus and little multitasking. The company is nimble.
Success drives the demand for new products, which require more and more people to develop and support. Demand grows for certain key people and functions, and those people spread themselves thinner and thinner. Meanwhile, the bigger the company, the more people there are with a vested interest in getting commitments. Investors want accurate forecasts of dates, expenses, earnings, and functionality.
This cycle drives more measurement based on hard commitments, so it’s not surprising that more mature organizations almost inevitably move towards a date focus and a “don’t be late” mentality. Ironically, those hard commitments and the “discipline” they seem to promote actually serve to make companies less nimble and less disciplined. Here’s why.
The more emphasis there is on hard commitments, including dates, the more people have to give safe commitments. Those safe commitments, like the extra time at the doctor’s office, cause gaps that need to be filled, which is why we might keep a computer or smart phone handy. We multitask. As an individual juggles multiple simultaneous commitments, the complexity and multitasking make everything more and more unpredictable. This syndrome gets much worse when you spread it across a whole organization and consider the interactions required to develop a new product. The only way to protect against this chaos is apparently to add some combination of more time, money, and emphasis to the commitments. And that perpetuates the cycle.
All this waste is hidden by the lack of transparency of the typical date-driven planning process: we see the dates, not the work. That lack of transparency is also self-sustaining. The less visibility you have, the more competing priorities develop, the more you have to buckle down and focus on the dates, and the less people can tease out the real time required for each task and project.
The cycle can be broken. It takes a combination of a monkey wrench, usually in the form of competitive pressure; and a methodology that can address the waste, like critical chain project management with buffer management.
One way to find out how much waste there is in your organization is to ask some key people, people on whom project timing often depends, how many important things they have on their plates at any given moment. Then imagine how much more quickly and efficiently they might work if they had only one important thing to focus on at a time. You might be surprised.
My wife and I recently completed a motorcycle safety class. There’s an interesting point they make over and over in the class: you should look where you want to go, not where you are. For example, look farther down the road to see what’s going to happen, instead of looking at the things at your feet that you don’t have time to change. If you’re making a turn, look into the turn, where you’re going; rather than straight ahead, where you don’t want to go. Looking towards your objectives makes riding easier and cuts down on accidents.
With critical chain scheduling, there are several ways that we look where we’re going. Of course, as we use schedules we look ahead, evaluating the impact of the current status on the buffers and (hence) the endpoints. We keep our sights on the overall project or portfolio.
We assign “touch” times for tasks, even if today there is a lot of multitasking. We plan in a way that sets expectations for future behaviors, making multitasking more difficult and more visible.
We also build a team sense of responsibility through shared planning and shared protection time. Yuji Kishira, in his book Wa, equates protection time with responsibility. If I feel responsible for completing my tasks on time, I will add protection time or “buffer” to my task time estimates. When we attach the buffer time to projects rather than to tasks, we create a shared sense of responsibility for completing the overall project on time. We develop a culture of “how can we help” rather than “who’s going to be late” or “who’s in the hot seat now.” We look ahead to how we want to act.
It seems as though any planning is looking towards where we’re going, but that’s not completely true. Suppose, for example, that your plan is a series of milestones. You have to emphasize the next milestone – the one nearest your feet – because it’s the most urgent, and you’re planning with the assumption that each milestone must be on time. Unfortunately, that takes the emphasis away from the bigger picture and the shared behavior changes that need to be in place if you want to improve speed, predictability, or productivity. It means you’re more likely to wipe out on the turns.
To make it short: Humans are not good at multitasking.
Yet knowledge workers in Corporate America are being asked to do exactly that. They are expected to stay on top of incoming emails, sometimes hundreds a day. They are asked to be reachable, go to meetings, and handle multiple assignments with ease. Multitasking is seen as a virtue. The ability to do so receives praise. However, multitasking comes at a significant cost.
In working with knowledge workers, I find many examples that show that our brains cannot fully focus when we multitask. People take longer to complete tasks and are predisposed to error. When we attempt to complete many tasks at one time or rapidly shift between them, errors go way up. Everything takes far longer than if the tasks were done sequentially. This is largely because the brain is forced to restart and refocus. A study found that for a time between each exchange, the brain makes no progress whatsoever. Therefore multitasking people not only perform each task less well, but lose productivity in the process.
Even computers are not always good at multitasking, as we find when we open too many applications and windows on our desktop machines. Our computers use hard drives as extended memories. If a computer cannot hold enough data in its memory, it pushes the data out to disk. If you have enough applications running in parallel, the system performance is reduced, because files have to be swapped back and forth between computer memory and hard disk. In computer science speak, this effect is called “thrashing.” You can bring any computer system to its knees by increasing the number of parallel processes; at that point we often need to re-boot.
A similar thing happens with the human brain. Let’s say we write a document (task 1) and get interrupted by a phone call (task 2).
- Writing a document requires focus. Blood rushes to the anterior prefrontal cortex – the switchboard of our brain. It basically activates the brain region required to perform the task at hand.
- Next there is the identification of the neurons within this region capable of completing the task, as well as the triggering of the actual task processing itself. This process is called “rule activation” and takes several tenths of a second to accomplish. We begin to write.
- While we are typing, our sensory system picks up the ring tone of our cell phone. Speaking and engaging in conversation are handled by a different brain region. The process of disengaging from our writing task is managed through the anterior prefrontal cortex. We store enough information to resume this task later. Then task 2 is started (see steps 1 and 2).
- We start another rule activation for task 2. We have real, measurable switching costs.
These are the steps that occur between two tasks. Imagine to what extent we are taxed with switching costs in a work environment where we process daily hundreds of emails, tens of calls, and multiple project assignments. Anything that can be done to bring focus in the work day, anything that can be done to bring hours of uninterrupted work time, will enhance productivity.
I have found in my work with corporate clients that people who are regularly interrupted take up to fifty percent (50%) longer to finish a task, even when they are not trying to switch between tasks. The number of errors also goes up by about that much. There are very effective excersises to demonstrate this effect. Keep that in mind when you organize your day.