Think you’re getting so much done when you multi-task? Think again.
Let me start with a ridiculous story:
I’m halfway through mowing my yard. It rained recently, so the mower’s kicked up a bit of mud and I’m filthy. My Lassie-smart dogs signal to me that the laundry dryer finished its cycle and my load of whites is clean – and it’s critical that I fold them NOW.
I kill the mower and push it into the garage (I don’t want to leave it in my yard unattended). I kick off my muddy shoes before I head inside and then I immediately jump in the shower. Dressed and clean, I’m now ready to fold the heck out of those white t-shirts and towels.
It only takes me 10 minutes, which is super quick. Once I’m finished, I go back to the garage, put my muddy shoes on, pull out the mower, and finish the lawn. And then I clean up all over again.
I told you it was a ridiculous story.
Context Switching Takes Your Time
There’s a fancy phrase for what I just described – it’s called “context switching.” The phrase is actually a computing term, but it translates to human task processing as well.
In computing, a context switch is the process of storing and restoring the state of a process or thread so that execution can be resumed from the same point at a later time. – Wikipedia
Every task, regardless of size, comes with ramp up and wind down time. Every time you switch tasks — even if its to do something quick — you’re pulled out of your current context and it will cost you time to get back into it.
As a developer, my ramp up time on a project looks like this:
- Navigate to the code base (my local copy and online)
- Fire up whatever local tools I need to do the tasks (Laravel Valet, a virtual server, terminal, etc.)
- Review my notes, Github issues, or my last commit message to help me remember where I left off and what I need to work on next.
- Gather any other resources
- Start doing productive work
Depending on the complexity of a project, that process might take me 3 minutes or it my take me 30 (or an hour if I’m fussing with the mysteries of Vagrant). Switching gears to another task (i.e. checking email) means that I’ll have to repeat at least a part of my ramp up time when I return to the project.
Even if it’s not long, my time is not trivial. Neither is yours.
So what’s a busy body to do?
Time Boxing Maximizes Your Time
Some people call it time blocking, others call it time boxing or blocking out your schedule. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but here’s the concept:
Plan your day by planning your focus. Schedule in your highest priority items and dedicate blocks of time to each item. Time boxing is simply a time management practice that helps you maximize segments of the day.
My friend Curtis is a rigorous time boxer and schedules client calls only two mornings a week. By grouping his calls he can spend that time “in the zone,” offering clients his full focus. Once done, he can dig into his work for the rest of the day without the distraction or interruption of calls.
Not only does time boxing help cut the costs of context-switching, but it also increases your productivity.
Have you ever been in a hurry to get out the door? When I was younger my dad would yell WE’RE LEAVING IN 15 MINUTES! Let me tell you I could set a land speed record for getting ready. No dawdling in front of the mirror, no endlessly lingering in my closet deciding what to wear. While I could have spent an hour on it, I was ready in 15 minutes.
When you set deadlines, you’ll push yourself harder than you would otherwise. You’ll also be more protective of that time and less inclined to interrupt yourself.
Ready to start time-boxing?
My mastermind group introduced me to time boxing a couple of years back. I’m no time management guru, but I do know that this planning technique has helped make my days much more productive.
What about you?
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