Do the Impossible: Multitask (Part 3 of 5)

Learning the 2nd function: Time-Slicing

Welcome back! The next function in mastering how to Multitask: TimeSlicing. If you haven’t already, you may want to read the previous posts:

In the first post, we got the basics of multitasking down (vs multi-processing or as Greg McKeown describes as ‘Multi-focusing’), and we covered the most important function, prioritization, in the second post. Now is when you need to set up your ‘time-slices’. That is the focus of this post.

I always thought I had planning down pat — but it wasn’t until after I became extremely strict in setting time boundaries around activities, that I felt a huge jump in GTD. In the context of preemptive multitasking, which we described in the first post, time-slicing is effectively determining what preset amount of time you will allocate per cycle before you pre-empt yourself to work on something else. There are huge benefits of doing this beyond just ensuring that you are allocating time between priorities. It also helps to combat fatigue and to gain perspective.

Usually when you are working on something, after a certain point, you’re not really working effectively, or you start to drift. The mind simply has difficulty focusing on one thing for extended periods of time. By setting up specific sized time slices, it is easier to wrap your mind around staying focused for that period of time, and in addition, you ensure that other items to do not stay ‘on hold’ for too long. Worst case, it will stay on hold only for as long as a single time-slice. With the right sized time-slices, you can focus on a particular task, achieve progress, and then switch to the next task — not only do you effectively manage your time, but you also have the added benefit of feeling progress.

This is the very core of ‘preemptive multitasking’ — Specific time slices after which, you swap your processor (brain) to a different task — giving the ‘perception’ of multiprocessing.

To compliment time-slicing, and before you see real results, you also need to set up your ‘mechanical’ activities. The things you shouldn’t think about. Famously, Steve Jobs (what is a post without a Steve Jobs reference?) wore the same thing daily so as to not waste time thinking about what to wear each day. The POTUS does the same (although his foray into wearing a tan suit, just freaked everyone out…). Wearing the same thing daily is a bit much for me, but I like the premise. I have a set morning routine where I basically do the same thing for the first hour of waking up, even eating the same thing for breakfast daily — just need it ready and made…(I can hear all the parents laughing at my naivety of thinking this is possible!).

Similarly, I have fixed time slices for many repetitive routines: lunch, email, calling family and friends, going to the gym — all at the same time each day. Once you set these up, you don’t need to think about them anymore and they just become habit, and your processor (brain) is more focused. You have all the rest of your time slots for your prioritized tasks.

Simple isn’t it? Seriously, this makes total sense right? So why doesn’t it work in so many cases? The reason: people are not mindful of the end! We all make this far too common mistake — we continue working past the end of allotted time thinking ‘I’m in the zone’.

It is tempting to not pay attention to when a fixed time-slice completes. Unless you really are in a ‘zone’ — don’t do it. Stop. Switch to the next task. The change of tempo and context will help when you come back. The example I give is to relate back to when you were playing sports with friends — you originally planned to play for an hour and half, and there is always one guy who insists: ‘one more game’ — you’re exhausted, but you do it anyway. It’s fun, but the reality is that you’re not playing anywhere close to your peak, and worse, you have aches all over making you want to just take a nap! So now the next thing you were going to do, takes a hit.

You’re better off to stick with the original time-slice you had originally set. If it is for a task that will take considerable time, such an essay or report, try to break down the task into meaningful accomplishments that can fit into the time slot, and then switch when the time is up. Ignore the end, and you’ll feel exhausted and wonder why everything keeps getting deferred (procrastinators unite!)

Don’t worry about the length of the time-slices yet. It is a bit of a black art. Make the time-slice too big, and other tasks will remain on hold for too long and your ability to focus will dwindle. Make the time slice too small, and you end up ‘thrashing’ just like a computer would. There is a period of time which you ‘waste’ to context switch. For example, when you switch from typing up an email, to reading a book for example, you need to recall where in the book you were, what the scenario was, sometimes you may end up going back a couple pages which is really more a reflection of poor saving of the context when you left the book originally. At a certain point the cost of context switching is higher than the benefit of doing multiple tasks. For now though, focus more on the discipline of actually switching when the allocated time has expired.

Over time you’ll figure out the correct sizes for different contexts that work for you. Everyone has his or her own processor (brain) with different processing power!

Take a stab — look at your priorities, set up some basic repetitive routines that you want to make mechanical, and then set up some time-slices with tasks based on your priorities, and run with it for a week to see what works/doesn’t work. Some repetitive routines I have: Morning rituals, Mid-day activity (sport/gym), Cooking dinner, every other day (this has been one of may favorite habits to build). Here is a great book on building habits: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s never too late to build new habits!

Next post: Notifications, Interuptions, Flags, and Semaphores

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