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Multitasking - how do you do it?

OK. Here is something I want to collect as much answers about as possible.

How can one multitask efficiently? This means that working on several projects (N) and making approximately 1/N of progress, whereas on one project the progress would be 1.

I find that for me personally, switching between things I really have to concentrate on takes way too much time. And I do mean heavy concentration, like getting into the "zone". Writing an e-mail with only half a brain needed, or advising somebody else (management!) on something without doing it myself is relatively easy, and I can do any number of those sequentially in a short time period with little loss of efficiency.

On the other hand, the things that need heavy concetration (or a lot of learning) go a lot more painfully. I still remember this idiot manager at the place I used to work giving me several projects similar in nature (a lot of learning and new stuff) at the same time, and then demanding progress on each of them after a short period of time!!! Boy, am I glad I got out! Life is too short to deal with morons like that ...

So, do you guys work non-stop on one of the projects for a day, week, month and then switch in situations like that? Or is there some better way? What about consultants, how do you do several demanding things at once?

Mr Curiousity
Monday, March 29, 2004

Very simple. I just make clones of myself and we divvy up the work.

Doug Kinney
Monday, March 29, 2004

> I just make clones of myself
> and we divvy up the work.

Nope.  Tried that.  None of us could agree on anything.

Eric Sink
Monday, March 29, 2004

You can't do it. Switching between flow states
costs about 20 minutes. You are only productive
in flow states. You spend too much time in overhead
for each task.

son of parnas
Monday, March 29, 2004

Work on one thing in the morning and the other thing after lunch. 

If you have three things, do that, but alternate days on the two least important things. 

If you have more than 3 things, work full time on the easiest one until you have 3 things.  Or table some of them so that you're only working on 3.  Three non-trivial projects seems to be my upper limit, at any rate.

Or, just flounder around incoherently and allocate time according to some vague combination of what is least boring, most important, and you're least stuck on at the moment.  Sometimes I choose that option, too.

Matt Conrad
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

At the place I previously worked, the company owner's mantra was "multitask and prioritize".  We never did see eye to eye on this as I always maintained that prioritization was simply the process of choosing which things I DO NOT have time to work on today and that multitasking was a joke since I can only work productively while "in the zone" on ONE thing at a time.

I try to spend the largest possible contiguous blocks of time on each task as possible. If I must complete 5 - 1 week tasks, company owner would say to work 1.5 hours each day on each task.....while I would quietly ignore him and complete them one per week.

This scenario actually played out once where at the end of week #4 I told him I had not even started on task #5. After he finished blowing up, I calmly explained that if I had followed his directions I would now be half-finished with all 5 tasks....but instead I was now 100% finished with the first 4 tasks. He still did not understand. 15 minutes after that I handed him my resignation. The next day he offered to leave me alone and asked that I reconsider.  Less than 18 months later, other aspects of his stupidity finally ran the company financially into the ground.

I'm so happy I got laid off from that miserable place and was forced to go find the perfect job!!!  I have since hired all the good developers I previously worked with and we're all doing very well at the new place!

ITDirector
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Multitasking is something that's easy when you don't have difficult work to do. Managers do it a lot.


Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Let's say you have 2 tasks, called A and B.

Each task takes 5 hours.

You can do it like this:

1. A B A B A B A B A B

or like this:

2. A A A A A B B B B B

In case 1 (heavy multitasking), the average time of completion of the tasks is 9.5 hours.

In case 2 (mono-tasking), the average time of completion of the tasks is 7.5 hours.

So, you see, there are certain advantages if you do things like in case 2.


The best aid for multitasking successfully is to have a paper notebook with me.

Whenever I switch tasks, I save my brain's task context to a page in the notebook.

I write exactly what is the next step, including the small details, and sometimes the following step, etc.

When I have to switch back to that task, I just read the notebook and don't have to spend a lot of time just remembering what I have to do, what little detail seemed important when I thought of it yesterday, etc.

MX
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

And where is the switch to paper notebook instruction stored?

Simon Lucy
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

My process is not a computer-like one, in spite of the fact that I described it in computer-like terms. I am a humanoid. I am more powerful than a computer.

MX
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I had a successful multi-task situation at work a couple years ago.  I had two completely independent projects I was working on.  To minimize context switches I alternated weeks.  This was a long enough time period for me to get into a serious groove, but not so long that I couldn't pick up the other task after a week away.  It helped that I was a sole developer on both projects, so there were not dependencies between other people and myself.

madking
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Dern, wish I were so lucky to work on only a few projects at a time. I'm usually having to work on at least 10 different things a day as I work in an open area and problems are shared.  What I do is I plan out any project that I expect to take more than an hour (like things beyond bug fixes). I think the framework, I then build the structure of the framework and of course now I'm called to do X and then someone reminds me to do Y ... We have a bug dbase that is used for everything not just bugs, plus I have a wiki where I store notes ... But the best thing, imho, is to just write blueprints for the stuff that stretches and just knock out the simple stuff as it comes through.

Me
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I *wish* I could multi-task across different projects at work. I have been working on a single project for 2 years now and I am soooo bored.

Yes, I've been warned to be careful of what I wish for.

DogCat
Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I am new at my job. I work in an office, and am  inexperienced at working in this kind of atmosphere.  I have to "learn through" each task so obviously each day I don't achieve as much as I would like.  However I have noticed a pattern- I am trying to prioritize and end up going in 8 circles all day long trying to remember where I left off with each thing last time (an hour before).  With each new big task comes the problem of not being able to finish because I have to ask someone for help, or hit an obstacle.  Because I have many questions, I am thinking, "who is most helpful in answering this question?" Then it becomes a chore either to email/ phone them and wait for an answer (we're all busy) or walk around finding them.  Then I have to start on something else while I wait to find out about the last thing.  I am trying to focus, but I can't just "get in the groove" because I am learning.  Three weeks in, my boss goes on a 2 week holiday, and I have had a crash course in a few more things the last two days.  I already have questions that I would have asked if we had had more time to go over things before she left.  So, how to get out of this rut without getting so far behind that I can't get ahead at work?  I want to prove myself to be competent.

sam
Thursday, April 08, 2004

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