Multi-tasking has gotten a bad rap in recent years, mainly from studies showing how difficult it is to effectively work on several things at once.
But multi-tasking doesn’t have to mean talking to one person and emailing another at the same time, or otherwise trying to simultaneously accomplish two tasks. It can mean juggling the rapid succession of things we need to deal with throughout the day – doing one at a time, but in short enough bursts that we can deal with the inevitable interruptions.
When we multi-task smartly, it can actually help us deal with everything that comes our way and get our work done.
The key is to single-task for long enough that you can actually get something done, yet not for unmanageably long blocks of time.*
In other words, traditional multi-tasking is bad (checking email while participating in a meeting, for example), but the traditional technique of scheduling a big block of time to work on something doesn’t really work either. We need interruptions and variety just as much as we need intense periods of focus.*
Human/computer interaction researcher Victor Manuel Gonzalez y Gonzalez studied how IT professionals managed the multiple activities they had to deal with during the work day. Some of the professionals he studied were managers, and they seemed to have a lot in common with principals.
He found that most people worked on about 9-12 different “working spheres” per day, and spent a total of about 45 minutes total on each one. They tended to work for about 12 minutes on a sphere before either interrupting themselves or being interrupted, both of which were roughly equally likely.
Everyone gets interrupted, but why would people interrupt themselves? Why not shut the door and focus on something until it’s done? Gonzalez concludes:
The results of this investigation have shown that, in general, the informants had a favorable preference towards multi-tasking. People identified two main benefits of this behavior.
First, multi-tasking among different projects and activities brought a higher degree of variety to their work, and reduced their boredom, as compared to having just one major project to deal with.
Second, multi-tasking led individuals to be more focused and concentrated on the task at hand, as they knew they would have to optimize their efforts in order to be able to focus on the other things they had to attend.
These benefits of multi-tasking are two sides of the same coin: When we’re engaged more intensely for shorter periods of time, we can get more done and be less subject to boredom and distraction.
What does this mean for our approach to getting big projects done? One practical strategy that a Washington principal shared with me in a study I did last year is to schedule multiple, shorter blocks of time to work on a big project.
If you block off three hours for “write report for school board,” you’re probably going to get bored, tired, interrupted, and frustrated. And if an emergency comes up and you miss the entire three hour work time, you’ll have no time left on your schedule to finish it later.
If instead you block off eight or ten slots of 10-15 minutes each to work on your big project in bursts, you’ll have:
- A lower chance of getting interrupted during each short burst
- A smaller backlog of issues that came up while you were working
- Multiple chances to finish the project, even if something takes you away from one of your bursts
- A more focused goal for each burst, so you’re less tempted to waste time on “settling in” activities like checking email
- Less time to get bored or run out of steam while working
Give it a try and let me know what you find.
A challenge Gonzalez notes: It’s often hard to remember what you were doing – and why – when you come back to a task. How do you deal with this?