Why I multitask

Here’s a typical article of the many I’ve seen of this year about multitasking being bad.

And I don’t argue with the main points. If I were a writer, blogger, coder, analyst, tax preparer, etc. I would agree completely.

In fact, in my past jobs where I work, I’ve been a big fan of single-tasking. I was a business analyst for a year and it was heaven to have uninterrupted hours where I could pull together my data, build my pivot tables, validate my data, write my analysis. I could focus and pay attention to what I was doing.

I still had my email open and my instant messaging window open (requirements at work), but I didn’t get that much traffic.

Before that, doing dedicated support I could still focus for periods of time. I worked one email or one request at a time. Instant messaging was useful to ask quick questions, but there weren’t that many. Sure, I probably did some fun chatting with friends at work but it was usually between requests.

I make it sound ideal, and there was probably more multitasking going on than I let on. The primary reason is that many tools take time to log into or to bring up the next screen and I am very likely to squeeze in something else while I’m waiting for that.

I know that right now I spend my days multitasking just about every minute of the day. And I try to figure out why so I can figure out what I can change.

Some of it is indeed that pulling up a new website, clicking through the 3 screens of a tool where I’m submitting something where each screen can take a minute or two to come up, or waiting for someone who wants to ask me a question who then takes 3 or 4 minutes to figure out what their question is, leaves large gaps of time that I feel I should be doing something. (Because I never get it all done at work these days.)

On a larger scale, much of what I do is along the lines of mind-reading, and since I’m not good at that it really turns into a short Q&A session, where I guess at the 3 possible things this user’s cryptic comment could mean, then reply to their email with the possibilities and some questions to help narrow it down so I can actually understand what their issue or request is. This means I then have to wait for their response.

Or I have to pull together the data to be changed and then send that off to the technical team to actually run the scripts to make that change. So I have a lot of things I track in a todo list so I can remember what the next step is when it gets back. That kind of things turns my day into a series of short tasks, 3 to 10 minutes in duration, so by the end of the day I haven’t so much multitasked as just singletasked 50 to 80 times.

The primary impediment to singletasking at work is the instant messages from end users. I am still struggling to figure out how to get the message out that a request to our mailbox can’t be finished in an hour. Some of them take 2 or 3 days. So users send another email which takes up more of our time to sweep through the inbox, figure out where the current request is sitting, and then figure out how to reply (or ignore if we’re going to respond to the original request soon anyway) the request for an update. And if they are really in a hurry (and really, no one sends us a request until it’s urgent and important and critical, and the business is going to fail if their specific request isn’t finished in an hour) they will instant message me or my coworker and spend 20 minutes in short bursts telling us why we should drop everything else we’re doing and go work on their request.

What I’ve tried to do there is coordinate with my coworker so one of us can go on Do Not Disturb (work doesn’t like us to not be online at all). When I’m on DND, Bobby gets my pings plus his own. Not that they reroute, but that people know to go to him if they can’t get to me. Here’s where I work very hard to protect the rest of the team so people don’t see their names and start pinging them. I try to limit it to Bobby and me. I’d love to get rid of it altogether, but that would be a huge culture shift at work.

But with two mailboxes to monitor (mine gets about 60 emails a day, the tool support mailbox gets over 100 a day), plus actual support work and data verification and analysis, plus the instant messages, and the fact that we need a few more people (ok, a lot more people) working on our support team, reality is just that we have to keep a few balls in the air all the time.

Every time I see an article like the one above I pass it on to Anthony. He truly needs to get better at singletasking and the suggestions and advice in these emails make sense for him. Then we talk briefly about why it wouldn’t work for my situation. And then I go to work and it’s like a firehose turned on, until I walk away from it at the end of the day. No wonder I’m tired.

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