Do the impossible: Multitask (part 5 of 5)
Awesome – so now you’ve got your prioritizations, you know your time-slices, and you have your flags and notifications under control right?
If you haven’t read the previous articles, you may want to get yourself up to speed first:
- Part 1: Multitasking is a necessity
- Part 2: Starting points for the 1st function: Prioritization
- Part 3: Time-Slicing
- Part 4: Notifications, Interrupts, Flags, and Semaphores
The last function that pulls it all together is Scheduling.
This is the part where you actually set up what and when you are going to do work. In a nutshell, you’re simply looking at your priorities, pulling out tasks from the top of a queue associated to each priority , and slotting those tasks into open time-slices in your calendar.
Going back to our Computer Architecture analogy, scheduling can be broken down into Long-term, Medium-term, and Short-term scheduling – each of which helps you to decide which of your prioritizations remain in the current focus.
Your weekly, monthly, and yearly prioritization reviews are basically your Long-term scheduler. They define all the different things that can potentially be worked on (which can take resource time). This is critical. Get the first function down pat and Ruthlessly Prioritize!
The reality is that once you have the first three functions under control, scheduling becomes very mechanical and falls into place. It becomes effortless in that it is the natural outcome of prioritizing, setting time-slices, and managing notifications. Simple right? Well the devil really is in the details.
Your schedule is the ultimate master of your time. Unless something is on your schedule – you should not be working on it.
This is the overall focus that you will have. Only those items that you will work on in a particular day/week should be available to you (in you laptop bag, on your to-do lists, or anywhere else that you use to keep track of items), the other items should be ‘swapped out’ and out of mind and out of sight.
A phrase one of my teachers always used was ‘a cluttered space is a clutter mind’ – I never paid much heed to that until later in life. It started to make more sense when I looked at it from a perspective of an ethos rather than just your physical space. To me that phrase is applied to all spaces including the virtual space, mental space, and even focused space.
The great thing about this approach though, is that you only have to learn to maintain focus for as long as your time-slices are. When beginning, keep the time slices small at 30 min or even 15 min, and as you get better at ignoring and managing all the distractions, slowly increase the length of the time-slices.
I use an 80/20 rule – my top 20% of priorities get 80% of my time. This doesn’t include things like ‘health’ or ‘family’ as those are not just priorities, but simply immutable must-attend to items. Furthermore, the routine items such as daily email review, wake-up/bedtime routines, and weekly hobby items are pre-scheduled into my calendar. This actually leaves very little time and so you want to be razor focused.
Some may argue that the overly imposed scheduled removes all opportunity for creativity and spontaneity. I’d argue the counter, that this actually ensures that you have the space for creativity. By creating a schedule, you can ensure that you schedule in specific times to allow for thinking outside the box. To sit on a beach and paint. To have a group offsite brainstorm session without your mind wandering to the backlog of emails you never know when you’ll attend to.
Medium-term Scheduling is simply the task of allocating when you’ll do the tasks within your time slices within a week, or sometimes within a month. If a particular task looks like it is too large to fit into a particular time-slice, I’ll set a smaller task to actually break it up and schedule that task. If you’re familiar with Agile, you’ll get this concept— I don’t implicitly add story points, etc, at this level, but I know of many who do.
Short-term Scheduling (and dispatching)
This is the actual execution of your daily time-slices. Based on your schedule, at the end of each time-slice or via a managed interrupt, you are simply context switching between items. Within each time slice, you are just hammering through the various tasks that you have listed in the associated queue.
1. At the beginning of each week, I simply fill open time slices with priorities (note, based on my monthly, quarterly, and even yearly reviews, priorities adjust accordingly), using the 80-20 rule.
2. I allocate two broad slots for each queue — first, an ‘estimations time-slice’ —I go through the items in a FIFO manner and break them down further into pieces that I estimate can be completed in one time-slice maximum. Ideally, I break them down even further. I keep everything in RememberTheMilk with appropriate links to Evernote, Dropbox, and online content.
3. Then I allocate ‘working’ time-slices for each queue, where I actually hammer through the items. Personally, I use a mixed approach of FIFO and Earliest Deadline First.
4. Break at the end of each time-slice, and switch focus. I try to be meticulous in context-switching – about 5 min before the time slice is up, I start shutting down browser tabs, saving information, and removing associate clutter.
You can also take a much more aggressive approach and also prioritize the items in each queue. I have found that to be too difficult and often get into analysis paralysis. I find it far more effective to simply keep each priority queue down to manageable sizes, and then at that point, just start hammering through them.
The scheduling part is the easiest if you have the first 3 functions working, but it is the most important —at the end of the day it is about ‘execution’ — getting things done. With the first 3 functions set, it is really easy to start scheduling and completing tasks. Over time, as you see what does and does not work for you, you can refine and adjust.
How do you know if you have manageable sizes? Simply use a lagging indicator — every month, look back at the progress you’ve made on your priorities. If you have only completed 50% of your items, they are too large. Don’t worry about losing sight of the forest for the trees — that’s what your monthly, quarterly, weekly prioritization sessions are for.
Multitasking really is possible! It simply comes down to distinguishing between literally trying to do multiple things at the same time vs having the right tools and processes in place in order to balance and apply undivided focus to different tasks. Those who argue that you can not multitask are usually confusing it with multi-processing?—?you can’t multitask at the same time, but over a period of 1 day, 1 week, or 1 month, if you are unable to manage multiple priorities, you will not be no better than the average.
Focus on improving on the 4 function areas: Prioritizing, Time-Slicing, Managing Notifications and Flags, and finally Scheduling. Practice makes perfect — you’ll be amazed how over a couple of months how the new routine will end up liberating you and you’ll vault into the echelons of the Multitaskers and Polymaths.
What tools and processes do you have that help you?