Multitasking and fragmenting still don't work

I have seen a bunch of articles and a podcast recently that address the issues of productivity and multitasking.  Here are three.

The AMA Moving Ahead newsletter from July 2007 has a piece that asks Is Multi-tasking Counterproductive? by Jo Averill-Snell.  It recounts the recent studies that have shown how long it takes to switch from task to task to task without getting anything done.  Happily, the author offers some ideas about what to do.  These should sound familiar.

  • Block out time for given projects or tasks.  Use hour-sized chunks, rather than minute-sized as happens in multi-tasking.
  • Set aside specific time to check e-mail and other interruption-creating tools.
  • Make it easier to return to primary tasks: larger monitors, multiple monitors.  I'm not sure I like this suggestion, as it still encourages looking at the attention sinks.
  • Use tools to accomplish repetitive work, such as collecting and collating data from multiple sources. 
  • There are coming tools which automatically gauge attention / priority of incoming messages

This leads to Merlin Mann's recent Inbox Zero talk at Google (video and slides, audio here).  He talks about the value of having a regular practice of getting all the crud out of your inbox.  While counter-intuitive, spending the time to process your mail one time ends up giving you more time to do the work that you really need to do.  The processing is the key, pick a small number of verbs that you can do with your mail and stick to it.  The familiar set from Merlin are: Respond; Archive; Delegate; Date Activate.  All these succeed in moving mail from the inbox to the trash bin or to another location.

My current inbox status: There are two messages I haven't quite figured out how I want to process (one requires that I decide to commit to writing a book chapter).  I leave my email open all day, which Merlin recommends against.

These thoughts about individual productivity and multitasking lead me to David Swanner, a trial lawyer, who asks How Does a Case Get a Year Behind?

How does a project get one year behind? One day at a time. ...

I have a number of cases with thorny issues that if I’m running and too busy, I’ll do a review and say “I need to do something about that”.

For Dave, it seems like progress to look at every case every day, regardless of whether he is able to move forward with them.  David's solution is pretty straightforward, as the person responsible for the work: set aside the time and get it done.

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