Multitasking failures and Flow – when 10 things go wrong

I had a rotten day on Friday. I know this, because no fewer than six people each told me that I seemed to be in a foul mood, and what’s more I felt that way too!

So what was happening? I’m no stranger to dealing with issues and setbacks in my work, and I’m normally pretty good at taking them in my stride. On reflection, I think what really pushed me over the limit last week was how many discrete and separate projects I found myself needing to grapple with.

Dealing with multiple responsibilities

I’m not a big fan of multitasking, as I believe it results in distractions, half-finished tasks and a greater percentage of your time spent “switching” from one thing to another. This is a little counter-intuitive in my line of work, as I am responsible for multiple projects and have to deal with numerous team and line management tasks in addition to my core job of “getting stuff delivered.”

On a typical day I have to “switch” my brain half a dozen times between various projects and sub-projects. I’m pretty good at this, and I’m not fazed by moving straight from a meeting on one project into another detailed meeting looking at a separate project.

On Friday however, I seemed to be switching every 30 minutes (and more) from one project to the next; my whole team (or so it seemed to me) wanted to catch me in every 5-minute gap, and each switch that was required seemed to result in a new problem being identified.

Like a steadily rising thermometer, my stress levels went up and up throughout the day, and by home time I was practically steaming at the ears.

Finding the “Silver bullet”

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This got me thinking: surely there’s a better way?

I don’t have a particular strategy for trying to “bunch” the tasks I work on through the day by area of responsibility…I deal with things as they arise, and meetings are based on availability, rather than any strategic productivity or scheduling principle. Could I do better by making more deliberate efforts to group together the tasks that are related?

I don’t have a “silver bullet” answer for this – the unexpected and urgent issues will still need tackling head on – but I’m going to give some thought to whether I can improve my scheduling on-the-fly by not trying to process things on a “first in, first out” basis.

Some things I’m going to try:

  • better up-front grouping. I’m going to make a more concerted effort to look at my daily task list and group them by project. I’m hoping this will result in a more coherent sense of “this morning, I’m working on X..” and will result in some obvious blocks of time with a shared theme.
  • be more “Inbox Zero” outside of my inbox. I’ve got pretty good at applying Inbox Zero principles (Do, Defer, Delegate, Delete) on my inbox, but I’m not really applying them to face to face interactions. Why aren’t I applying the two-minute rule to the things that people raise with me in person? If I can’t solve it in 2 minutes, I should be deferring or delegating these things. I need better strategies for responding to people with “I’ll have time to look at that this afternoon;come and see me at…” and identifying opportunities to tie together ad-hoc requests with scheduled tasks of the same (or similar) theme.
  • Taking time out. the natural response when the pressure is on is to work harder, when quite often the best response is to take a break. I’m going to try and make a more concerted effort to be aware of my stress levels and take remedial action when needed.

This job would be a lot easier if everyone would leave me alone…

It’s the nature of the beast (at least in my job) that you can’t plan a day perfectly, and that best laid plans always come undone. It’s actually one of the things that makes the work interesting and exciting, so for all the stress of it I wouldn’t trade it in for a quieter life.

The challenge I need to work on is embedding a more flexible, dynamic approach that gives me tools to adapt to the ebbs and flows whilst retaining the feeling of being in control.

I’m not there yet, but I’ll continue to experiment and see if I can find better ways of dealing with my enforced multitasking environment.