‘Juggling Everything, Expertly, Everyday’
Most of us spend our working time juggling a multitude of activities and projects. Sometimes this can be frustrating because while we’re undoubtedly busy, it can take an age to finish anything and move on to something new.
I’m often asked whether it’s better to concentrate on one activity at a time or to multitask – and the possibly disappointing, but honest, answer I have to give is ‘it depends’. Both have advantages and drawbacks – and we all benefit from developing the opposite to our preferred approach and increasing flexibility.
Traditional time management approaches typically recommend you single task, following a project doggedly through to conclusion before beginning another. And it makes sense – if you can immerse yourself in a project, you’ll spend less time reviewing information, recapping where you were before beginning the next part.
The big advantage of single tasking is that some projects can be completed sooner than others, and so particularly where a project is going to be delivering additional revenue or savings, this could be a preferable approach.
Let’s use an example to help me explain; If you have 5 projects to work on, and each will take 1 week to complete, that’s 5 weeks of work. So if you multi task through the 5 weeks, all 5 projects would be completed at the end of week 5, delivering revenue/savings from week 6.
However, if you focus on just 1 project in each week, it’ll work like this…
- At the end of week 1 – project 1 would be ready to bring in revenue/savings for the next 4 weeks
- At the end of week 2, project 2 will be bringing in revenue for the next 3 weeks.
- At the end of week 3, project 3 will be ready to bring in revenue for another 2 weeks
- And so on…
To make the numbers easy, and simply to illustrate the point, if each project delivered revenue or savings of equal value, a single tasking approach could bring in an additional 10 weeks worth of value.
So in the above example, if you focused on just one project at a time, it would increase your productivity, and deliver revenue/savings faster. Maybe you would benefit by taking on fewer projects at a time and completing each more quickly?
But how realistic is that?
Most of us are juggling the demands of long and short term projects, and fitting them in around the routine tasks that keep our organisations running effectively. And often what seemed a priority for action at 9.00am has to be dropped because something more pressing has arrived by 10.00am. We rarely seem to have a clear run at anything for very long.
In reality, prioritisation is a review process that goes on all day, as you constantly re-evaluate what is the best use of your time and energy at a given time. And with so many dependencies on projects, you’re often limited by the progress you can make as you wait for information, materials or support from others involved.
In this environment, it’s essential you multi-task, juggling all those activities simultaneously. Fortunately, many people enjoy constant variety and recent research even suggests natural multi-taskers may find it less stressful to handle constantly shifting priorities and topics – it’s what they create after all.
So what can you do to be comfortable with both approaches & take the best of each?
Here are a couple of suggestions;
- Some enjoy doing one task at a time and gain satisfaction from completion. When multiple challenges are thrown at us, to be completed in short order, it can seem overwhelming. Don’t panic – you can quickly lose perspective as the adrenaline kicks in. Take a few minutes to collect yourself, taking deep breaths and then refocus on which of the new activities is the top priority now, and focus on completing that one first.
- Others are happier moving between activities, and if there are no distractions available, create them. We all have our own attention span beyond which we begin to look for distractions – Is yours 10 minutes, 30 minutes, two hours? Longer?
It can be surprising – sometimes we genuinely believe we have a lengthy attention span but in reality break it up frequently by checking e-mails etc. Notice what yours is and begin to build up your tolerance for focusing in longer chunks.
Try a new pattern to your day – perhaps quiet focused work for 45 minutes, then take 15 minutes for a stretch, email and a few phone calls perhaps, before settling down to focused work again. Most people find this energising, and it increases the amount of work finished, and not just ‘ongoing’.
Next post; ‘Managing Interruptions From Your Boss’