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When Multitasking Is The Only Option

Multi-tasking doesn’t exist. All the science tells us that we are only capable of task switching. And task switching is really bad for us. Every time we switch tasks, we add to our cognitive load making us less effective at all the tasks we are attempting to do at once. A lot has been written on this topic with the attempt to justify creating work environments where people can focus.

It’s an admirable goal, but one that is completely unrealistic in many cases. For some jobs, juggling lots of tasks at once is the core part of the role. Any project manager or developer who has doubled up as a sysadmin can attest to that. I’ve definitely had roles where I was lucky to have a single hour uninterrupted.

I complained about this at first. My team regularly missed our sprint goals with my contributing no small part to those misses. How could I get any work done? I started logging interruptions to my time and it came about to 20-30 a day. Horrific.

That is until I actually looked at the subject of those interruptions. After talking to my boss, I realized that while my own work was suffering, the value I was providing to the company overall was higher because of my contributions to other teams. With the exception of a few situations, it was better for me to handle those interruptions than it was for me to be allowed to focus. So what if it takes an average of 15 minutes to regain focus if it means saving someone else a couple of hours or more?

While it’s true no one can be more productive multi-tasking with their own work, it doesn’t mean we should give up and just say multi-tasking is the ultimate no-no and no one should do it. For many of us, we should also look into how to minimize the negative effects of multi-tasking. Sometimes I can force myself back into the right context quickly, but this isn’t a reliable tactic. “Willing” yourself to do something isn’t feasible most of the time.

This is something I plan to read a lot more about in the future, but there is one tactic that’s definitely helped me so far: writing things down.

For developers, we’re often building complex systems and we try to build and hold all that complexity in our mind at once. Any interruption will cause those fragile thoughts to tumble like a house of cards. But writing down those thoughts as they come, even if the writing is gibberish to anyone but me, helps me solidify those thoughts. I’m able to recover from interruptions much quicker. Oftentimes, I don’t even need to look at my writing. The initial act of writing something down helps improve my memory.

I’m sure there are other tactics out there. They just need to be found. If you know of any, I would love to hear from you!

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