Recently, I had a very interesting but somewhat unpopular conversation with my staff. The topic was multi-tasking – or in this case, the inability to do so. It turns out this is hard to do in our ever changing world. There are constant interruptions and distractions that make it a challenge to keep on track. In this case, I wasn’t asking for them to build me a space ship to go out in search of the final frontier. We all just needed to step it up a bit so we could get more done. It turned into a very good dialog and it inspired me to write a blog article because there are ways to help someone who doesn’t do a good job handling more than one task at a time. We talked about some ideas and things I do personally that help me “keep 20 balls in the air.”
First off, being organized is key and much of what we talked about revolved around that topic (again, not wildly popular with said staff member). Here’s what we discussed and summarized.
1. Schedule a time to give intense or complex tasks full focus. We do a lot of programming around here and that is very intensive and complex. So I suggested setting aside a time to do those kinds of tasks and stick to it. If need be, put up a “do not disturb” sign on the door (if you have a door), or turn off your “I’m available” notice on instant messaging. The point here is make it easy on yourself to concentrate.
2. Work on one thing at a time but alternate. Even though I have lots of balls in the air, I really only work on one thing at a time. The trick is knowing which ball to grab out of the air next. If things have deadlines, they move to the top of the “task pile.” I also have the rule of “will it make me money” – which again, moves it higher in the list.
3. Eliminate unnecessary tasks – a book I read once said write 7 yellow sticky notes with the word No – then assign them to tasks. Sometimes, these are “hypothetical” stickies – by that I mean it may be an email that you are deleting and ignoring rather than responding. In essence, you are saying a “virtual” no.
4. Choose compatible tasks – if one tasks needs intense focus, don’t pair it with another task of equal need. My husband likes to read or study while listening to music. I never could do that because I get into the music so much it distracts from reading. So, to me, reading and listening to music are not compatible.
5 Choose interruptable tasks – this means doing things that can be stopped mid stream to answer the phone. Programming, by the way, is NOT one of those things. That’s why if you try to talk to a programmer while they are deep in the middle of their code, they might react like a rabid dog. Trust me on this one – I have experience.
6. Keep smaller projects or tasks near by – do them when you are waiting on a reply for a larger project, or in our world, waiting on a really slow program installer to finish (program to remain unnamed so they don’t get grumpy with us).
7. Use wait time efficiently – keeping in mind item 6, when you are waiting on the really slow Microsoft SQL program (oops, I revealed the name…) to install, or you are waiting on Delta to once again be delayed, read those articles you put into the “read later” folder in your email. If you have a small notebook, which I do, write down ideas for future projects. iPads have become a wonderful tool for this and with aging parents, we spend more time in doctors offices – waiting and waiting and waiting – and we have discovered every one of the offices has free internet – gee what a concept. You know this is a problem and not a feature when your iPad “remembers” the offices as soon as you sit down.
8. Keep a Schedule, not a To Do list – A to do list simply reminds you that you have things to do but doesn’t set out a time to do them. It doesn’t matter if your schedule is paper or electronic, keep one and keep it visible. That same book referenced earlier – called Order from Chaos – talked about this. And the author had this mantra – plan your day, work your day, end your day – repeat. She said if you didn’t finish a project today don’t assume it will happen tomorrow because if you have done your job, you have already filled the time slots.
9. Keep your multi-tasking tools close – a friend of mine laughs at me because I can tweet so fast – I often will do that while we are chatting. It’s because she inspires me at that moment of a topic that would be a good tweet and I fire off the tweet then, while I am thinking about it – or I write it down on my “tweets for later” file. The reason I can do this quickly is one of my 3 main windows open on my computer contains Hootsuite. In fact to make it easier on myself, I only keep 3 Windows open. I do this even though I can multi-task because dozens of windows open are simply confusing and slow down my computer. FYI – my 3 windows are Chrome (which has 3 tabs open – Gmail, Hootsuite, and a search window), my email, and ACT (which runs my life). With those three things I can “own it” and do just about everything I need.
10. Take a brain reboot. I like to do a “brain reboot” by shifting from multi-tasking to doing only one thing. It may be a walk out in the yard pulling dead flowers off a bush, or simply sitting in a chair on the deck listening to birds. These aren’t long tasks – they are usually 15 to 20 minutes. But I take them every 2 to 3 hours to clear my mind. And all of them mean getting up and walking away from my desk, and the phones, and the tasks sitting there waiting for me. And I must add a little confession to this – sometimes it’s looking at Facebook – but I tend to not do that one because that could be hours and not minutes.
In summary, it is possible to multi-task. It helps to be organized. Tools help. Having enough time is essential. And you have to at least try.