The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

Tony Schwartz has a great, short piece on the HBR blogs, The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time. It was posted two weeks ago and has over 500 comments plus it's been retweeted and discussed in many other places. If you have some time to focus, peruse the comments along with the article. Good conversation.

Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?

It's not just the number of hours we're working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.

What we've lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It's like an itch we can't resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.

I have written on this topic many, many times. It's a favorite element of both my personal effectiveness and project management lines of thinking. The short form is that multitasking saps individuals and organizations of effectiveness AND energy. And it is a vicious cycle, tied up with task prioritization, deadlines, work overload, work-life balance, and many other familiar topics around human performance.

As a reminder, what we are talking about here is task switching. I am not particularly interested in aspects of walking and chewing gum, or driving while talking on the phone.

Multitasking in the business context means working on multiple tasks "at once." Or as we know, having a big pile of work and being forced to SWITCH between them without ever getting them done. Throw on top of it the problem of interruptions and too-many-meetings, and you get a great ball of nothing-gets-done.

How to make this happen? If you are a solo practitioner, the general direction has to do with removing the opportunity to pull yourself in multiple direction. Use the Pomodoro Technique to focus in blocks. Use something like Personal Kanban to explicitly create a means to limit the work-in-process. Use Getting Things Done or similar approaches to manage context and help your brain.

If you manage a group or a portfolio, you need both standards of behavior (to help reduce distractions, eliminate useless meetings, and deal with email overload) and new ways of approaching work (to help reduce active tasks and keep clear prioritization. For project organizations, I really believe in Critical Chain Project Management from the Theory of Constraints approach to business. For smaller groups and even in combination with other project management approaches, I really like the Kanban approach to dealing with knowledge work.

3 Comment(s)

Thanks for pointing me to Personal Kanban. Hadn't heard of that one yet!

Personal Kanban is a great approach. It greatly simplifies the ideas of Kanban (for software) or Agile for use at the individual or small group level. And it brings forward the importance of visualization so that I can SEE what is going on.

Bonka said:

Thanks for this really great post.

I was happy to see that the concept of Kanban is discussed and consider useful also in the area of personal effectiveness.

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