Multitasking has long been lauded as a way to get more done quicker. I believe (and I'm not alone1 2) that multitasking is actually the enemy of productivity. The analogy between the human brain 🧠 and a computer 💻 has been done to death, so I'd like the apologize now for the fact that I'll be using it. Your ability to focus- well maybe you're special, I don't want to assume so... my ability to focus is like a single core processor. While technically my brain is doing many things at once, the part that I use to accomplish meaningful work (i.e. thinking) can only do one thing at a time3. The way that we accomplish multiple things seemingly simultaneously is via context switching.
A context switch is the process of turning your focus from one task to another. It involves a lot of moving pieces, but quite simply, your brain needs to store the state of whatever it was doing, load the state of whatever it's about to do, then start doing that thing. I just created myself an example by accident:
- My focus on one of the previous sentences was interrupted by a feeling of thirst.
- My brain stored the remainder of the thought I had.
- My brain loaded the location of my drink to the forefront of my mind
- I physically executed the task (i.e. took a drink)
- My brain stored the location of the drink back in memory for later usage
- My focus returned to the task of writing this post and I finished the sentence
Wow, that was a lot of writing for "I took a drink"! Our brains are incredible and make most of these interruptions look easy, but there is still some wasted time in switching focus, time which adds up. Now I'm not suggesting anyone shouldn't drink while writing blog posts (please stay hydrated 💧), just that minimizing context switching is important. The more things I try to work on at once, the more my focus will be split, and the more context switching I will do. The way to minimize wasted time, then, is to minimize work in progress.
Work in progress, or WIP, describes all the things that I've started doing but haven't finished. As it accumulates, WIP can cause some serious problems. For one, the more work I have in progress, the slower all of that work is getting done. The time wasted context switching is time I could spend finishing a task. Another serious consequence is that my brain has a limited amount of working memory (the equivalent of a computer's RAM). As that memory fills up, I'll either lose the ability to process new information (ever feel overwhelmed? 🤯) or start forgetting details 🤔. This can lead to mistakes 😨, frustration 🤬, lost productivity 🤤, and our favorite fiend, stress 😖.
So how does one limit work in progress? Well to start requires a really good understanding of the work to be done ✅. Ideally, this means writing it down. It could be in a notebook 📓, on sticky notes 📝 (for you Kanban fans), or somewhere digital 📲 (I use Google Keep for personal and Jira for work). The key is to store what needs to get done in somewhere other than the brain so it's left with maximum potential for burning 🔥 down tasks. Not everything should be written down, recording the information is overhead all on its own. The goal here is to prevent waste, so if just doing the task would be less of an interruption than recording it for later, follow Nike's advice and "Just Do It."
For some tasks a simple note is enough, but larger tasks need to be broken down into smaller sub-tasks 📝. This is important, as trying to work on a big task all at once is just as bad as working on a bunch of little things. If my brain can't hold all the information it needs to complete the task 🥵, I'm going to end up wasting time remembering different pieces of the job. In addition to being small enough, each task should have a clear beginning and end state. If the end state 🏁 for a task isn't clear, I won't begin it yet. Doing so is a good way to quickly end up down a rabbit hole 🕳.
In a perfect world I'd break down all large tasks into the complete set of sub-tasks before starting. Alas, neither the world not I am perfect, so I frequently discover 🕵🏾♂️ new things that need to be done while I'm working. When this happens, I'm context switching ⏳. It's important to quickly identify when this happening before it completely derails the task at hand. Given that I'm already interrupted, I take a moment to quickly write down this newly discovered work to be done later, then I immediately get back on track. Starting new work that doesn't accomplish the end state for my current task means I'm adding WIP, which means I'm adding trouble.
So that's it. By limiting the amount of work I'm doing, I'm able to finish things faster, achieve more, and maintain relatively low stress levels while doing it. I tried to keep this post relatively abstract because these techniques can be applied to any kind of work. I limit how much I do at once to improve programming output (quality and quantity both!), manage home improvement tasks, and even hone my video game skills. This post was inspired by a book called The Phoenix Project which, if you haven't read already, I highly recommend. The story is contrived, but it's an easy read and packed full of good advice.
If you made it all the way down here, thanks for reading! This is my longest post so far, so hopefully it was helpful and not too boring.