Category: Time Management (Page 2 of 2)

Should you multitask?

Quit the Percentage Game: Make Focus Your Focus


“Anne, I want you to spend 40% of your time on Project Narwhal, 40% on Project Jackelope, and the remaining 20% of your time on everything else,” said Bob, the new IT manager. This type of directive isn’t confined to Bob and his personal style of management. The percentage game is played in millions of teams, in countless companies across the globe.

On the surface, everyone understands the rules of this percentage game. It seems so easy: Just do a few hours on this, then a few hours on that and cap it off with the rest. But, there are some major problems with this approach. Usually, we don’t see them — so we sprint ahead, leaving a trail of unrealized opportunity behind.

Is Focus a Luxury?

The first, and simplest, problem is our simplification of the “everything else.” My subjective observations in large companies (where tracking time is a common activity) taught me that 15% of your time — at minimum — is spent on overhead activities such as emails, general meetings and collaboration, and administrivia such as time tracking or status reporting.

For poor Anne from our example, that leaves 5% for existing and recurring maintenance responsibilities, disruptive unplanned work and anything else that comes up. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that this equation doesn’t add up.

The larger problem, by a wide margin, is how much revenue — and employee sanity — we forfeit due to the way we manage work. Sadly, most companies don’t know about, or aren’t doing, the things that could stem the tide of these critical losses.

Even brand new managers aren’t naive enough to think that splitting a person’s time into percentages is ideal. But often, they feel that it’s their only choice. They’ve climbed the corporate ladder in environments that taught them that work is inherently chaotic, and that focus is a luxury most organizations can’t afford. So, many managers don’t stop to consider the possibility of letting people focus on a single category of work, be it a single application or project or merely focusing on maintenance or unplanned work of a team.

The underlying fear is that, if we don’t start all of our commitments, we might not finish them on time. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to understand that starting everything is the very thing that gets in the way of finishing anything.

The Myth of Multitasking

Many people take pride in their ability to multitask. This is excellent for some activities, like listening to a podcast while folding laundry. In this situation, your brain only needs to actively concentrate on one activity.

In knowledge work, multitasking is a fallacy. We rapidly switch between brain-intensive activities which hinders our ability to productively focus on anything. How many times have you checked e-mail during a meeting and then realized you didn’t hear what was said? Whatever the reason for the context switch, the cost of the time lost transitioning between tasks is usually far greater than we realize — not to mention the reduced quality of our efforts due to distraction.

Multitasking Math

Let’s do a quick calculation to visualize the time cost with a scenario of five interruptions a day, with a loss of 10 minutes of work time per interruption (five minutes to ramp down and and five to ramp back up):

5 interruptions x 10 minutes = 50 minutes of lost work time [per person/per day]

You might be thinking, that’s under an hour, that’s just the cost of doing business. While you’re right that some interruptions may be worth the cost, let’s look how this cost adds up across a team of eight:

50 minutes x 5 days per week = just over ½ of a work day lost [per person/per week]

8 people x ½ day per week = 4 working days lost [per team/per week]

Just think: What could you do with another person on your team for four days a week?

When this realization kicks in, teams start to consider policies and procedures they can put in place to limit interruptions or, at least, group them together to reduce the ramp up/ramp down time. We’re not just talking fly-by’s (which were discussed in Brandon Hedge’s excellent post, Do You Have Five Minutes?). We’re also talking about emergencies, mid-stream priority changes and scattered meetings.

The Lesser-Known Cost of Context Switching

The truth is that things like “meeting mornings” or scheduled office hours are processes we put in place to deal with the excessive work-in-process (WIP) levels of the larger organization. These systems would not be necessary if organizations made an intentional effort to increase their focus on a limited set of priorities, with an understanding of how that achieves greater speed and flow.

A huge contributor to the underlying problem is that most organizations plan how much can go into their portfolio by looking at capacity and effort estimates. Unfortunately, the world of knowledge work is not that simple.

On paper, you might estimate that a project will take three months for four specific people to complete. As you continue to estimate more projects and add them to the Gantt chart, you end up playing an intricate game of Tetris to align the right people for the estimated duration of the work.

The massive elephant in the room is that we aren’t just stamping out the same widget over and over. There will be obstacles that can’t be discovered until we begin the work. Because estimates can’t account for these unknown obstacles, they are regularly wrong.

In addition, we fail to account for the times that we consult with, or seek help from, others to finish our tasks. So, not only do projects take more time than estimated, we also involve more people. The problem is that our Gantt chart tends to be like a house of cards. When you throw one wrench into the works, it creates a complicated web of conflicting priorities, deadlines, and constant interruptions: In a word, chaos.

Some organizational complexity is unavoidable, but it can be well-regulated by embracing focus as a pillar of success. You know you’re on the right track if you have:

  • A clear, but limited set of key priorities at any given time
  • An environment that fosters focus (on stated priorities)
  • Tools to visualize and collaborate on work.

These things allow teams and individuals to manage the complexity of the organization to keep it within accepted levels.

The Most Realistic Estimates Aren’t Estimates: Managing WIP and Accounting for Dark Matter

As a manager of development teams in the past, I observed that my team, on a PMO capacity planning chart, might show that it could accommodate up to four projects for our eight person team. But experience showed that, despite the numbers, the chances of project failure increased significantly when we worked, collectively, on more than two projects at a time.

Choosing to manage the reality of our work rather than stubbornly stick to the numbers, we limited our project availability to two at a time and saw our success rates skyrocket.

When I thought about the discrepancy between the capacity plan and reality, I had an epiphany: The effort involved in completing a project is more than the sum of the lines on a project plan. There’s an unforeseen dark matter that is hard to quantify, and difficult to predict, in an estimate. It’s comprised of tasks you didn’t know you’d need to do and people that you didn’t know you’d need — not just to do the unknown tasks, but to provide perspective, feedback and assistance.

Overcommitting teams doesn’t allow for handling of this dark matter and creates a system that causes the chain reaction of interruptions most companies deal with today. That simple equation, calculated across multiple teams, can equal huge amounts of unrealized value. For small companies, it can be a death knell. For larger companies, it may explain why things get harder and harder to finish as a company gets bigger. We get in our own way.

Quit the Percentage Game

The situation may seem dire, but it can be turned around by getting your team to focus on getting focused. If you’re lucky enough to control what your team works on then set, adhere to and refine team WIP limits. Teach the importance of focusing on moving work to “Done,” rather than starting new work. Agree upon what conditions make it appropriate to divert from that focus. Finally, learn about alternatives to task-based estimation, like predictive modeling. These policies and behaviors will force difficult, but necessary, discussions on prioritization.

If you can’t control how much work comes down the pipe, use the calculation above to measure the cost of excessive WIP. Then, present the surprising numbers to your leadership team. Fortunately, most executives can be swayed by evidence on the impact unmanaged WIP has on the bottom line. Once people agree that there’s a problem, steps can be taken to combat it.

The Kanban Method, especially at the portfolio level, teaches us the practice of systems thinking — it forces us to start paying attention to how work flows through the entire organization. It teaches concepts that help transform a stressed, chaotic assembly of teams into an aligned, effective value delivery system. Try the activities in our Kanban Roadmap with your team to get started on a path toward becoming a healthy, focused organization.


Constant Phone Notifications Are Ruining Your Productivity


Have you heard? Multitasking is so last year. New research has begun to suggest that becoming a GTD all star doesn’t necessarily mean doing it all, all at once. The new way to work is by dialing into one activity, also called monotasking.

Admittedly, monotasking does not always come easy these days. You are constantly being bombarded with stimuli: social media that updates in real time, text messages, email alerts, Twitter mentions, Slack messages, Trello notifications (gulp). How are you supposed to focus with all this stimuli fighting for your attention?

There is only one answer: turn them off. That’s right, all of them.

Why Do We Check Our Phones So Much?

With notifications turned on it becomes nearly impossible to avoid periodically checking on messages. Some studies have suggested that the average person checks their phone up to 150 times a day. The reason for that stems partially from a desire to feel connected, but also, interestingly, as a stress reliever.

According to a study by Baylor University, compulsive phone checking was seen as an attempt to reduce anxiety. Participants reported that the behavior of looking at their phone alerts was a way to boost their mood.

Another study conducted by Aalto University in Finland found that the process of checking your phone and receiving a notification produces a reward loop in your brain which compels you to repeat the action over and over again in search of more “rewards,” in the form of notifications. These findings substantiate the above Baylor study that phone checking is correlated with a dopamine response, by providing momentary satisfaction.

Trying to make yourself feel better is certainly not a bad thing, but is checking your phone for new alerts really the answer? Science says no, and that the only thing you’re getting from your incessant checking is a dearth of productivity.

What’s The Cost?


Your focus is suffering, a lot. In a study done by Florida State University, participants were asked to complete a test that measures their attention span, first without their phones next to them, and then again with their phones by their side as researchers intentionally pinged them.

The result is just as you’d expect: participants scored significantly worse on the test when their phone was buzzing by their side. To make matters worse, participants didn’t even need to _look_ at their phone for it to have an effect on their performance. The results showed that if their phone audibly buzzed while on vibrate mode, but wasn’t actually checked, participants scored the same as if they were actually pausing to read the notification.

Have Purpose

Context switching, or jumping from one task to another, is a proven productivity killer. In its simplest form, that’s really all that phone checking is: a jump from one task to a completely different one.

By turning phone notifications off, you are forced to make more conscious decisions about when to engage in your various feeds. When you have free time, and are ready to dive in, your notifications are there waiting.

When notifications appear on your locked screen, your instinct is to check them immediately. Often these notifications pop up when you’ve been focused on a different task, you’re engaged in a face to face conversation, or you’re not ready to respond. These are all terrible times to check notifications.

Here’s a few reasons why:

  • If you’re focused on something else when you look up to see notifications, you have context switched. It may take you as long ashalf an hour to get back into “focus mode.”
  • If you’re in a face to face conversation, you are giving people the impression that you are not giving them your full attention. (And, let’s face it, you’re not.)
  • If you check it at a time when you’re not ready to respond, you’re probably going to forget about it when you are actually in a place where you can address it.

Or, to put it in other words, they’re phone faux pas.

Help Is On The Way


If you can’t bring yourself to head to your settings page and shut down those pesky notifications, here are a few apps that might help.


Offtime lets you set time blocks where you can temporarily turn off notifications. You can even set categories like “family” and “work” so that you still remain connected to certain areas of your life. There’s even analytics about your phone usage, to give you a better perspective.


Similar to Offtime, except Flipd actually initiates a custom lock screen, complete with a timer. You can also set emergency contacts so that important people in your life can always get through. Another interesting aspect of Flipd is they offer an opportunity to connect with the rest of their community, and even complete challenges with others. It puts the “fun” in “focus”… or something like that.

Moment (iOS only)

Moment provides you with daily data about your phone usage. You can set a limit that you don’t like to go over, and if you do, Moment will actually blank out your screen and remind you to set your phone down and chill out in the real world. The interface has a soothing traffic light color UI pattern to let you know if you’re in the red with usage.


The point is, be purposeful about when you engage and don’t engage in your messages. Not only will you feel better overall, but your productivity will get a boost as well. So head on over to that settings menu and give it a try.

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