Food, Attention Deficit and Context Switching

“The art of eating your work.”

Okay, had a stray thought while eating breakfast one fine Saturday morning.  It dawn on me that in today’s twitch generation, many people have fallen victim to the dangers of attention deficit and context switching.

Attention deficit (AD) is chronic condition including attention difficulty, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness.  It’s where you have trouble focusing on one thing for a long period of time.

Context switching (CS) is the case where you are interrupted (either externally or internally) with your work and switch to something different.  In the process of switching, Gerald Weinberg proposed in “Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking” that for over 99% of people, it decreases productivity, starting at 20% by adding one more project.

context switching

Both AD and CS go down to even emailing and talking on the phone at the same time or working on a task and then checking LinkedIn or Twitter for a post updated to you.  For me, I’m a victim of wanting to check an email or switching between the remembering of a task and then wanting to switch to that now in order to get it done before I forget it again.  Often, I have to re-remember what I was doing in the first place!

So it dawned on me that I should be approaching work like I approach eating.  I eat one thing at a time.  I focus on eating until done and I cannot stand wasting food.  I won’t stop until I’m done.  Every so often, I’ll run out of time to finish, so I just save the food and then finish it later.

My eating habits are certainly mine and everyone has their own, but consider picking up your best habits and applying them to your work, whether it is for eating, watching the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit marathon or playing basketball.

What I’ve found to help my modern day “ooh shiny” syndrome be held at bay are through the following techniques:

  • “Stop Starting and Start Finishing” – A great slogan from the Limited WIP Society and the idea behind Kanban.  Using Kanban boards, whether personal and / or professional can really help decrease context switching
  • Turn your notifications off! – Phone notifications, email, alarms, alerts, etc.  Create a period of no interruption in advance and close your door, shut yourself out.  This is not possible if you are tech support, but you can at least minimize the noise and clutter of all the devices you programmed to bother you on a daily basis
  • The Pomodoro technique is fabulous way to place structure into your work day.  You get 25 minutes of focused time with an actual timer where you are not allowed to have interruptions.  If you do, you are supposed to write them quickly down and move back to your task.  If the interruption is urgent, then the pomodoro must stop and you have to begin from the start again to continue.  You get a 5 minute break to take care of the shiny objects and then start again, doing a set of four time in which you get a 25 minute break

These methods help combat attention deficit and context switching, but I’ve found that treating my tasks like food has made doing these “a piece of cake”.

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The Importance of Visibility

At one of my former employers, they were implementing a huge engineering project (estimated costs in the billions) and brought me in to lead the IT project oversight for the adoption of software to support the Reliability and Maintenance (R&M) of specialized oil tankers once placed into commission.​

At the onset, the overall R&M Project Manager believed this extra level IT oversight wasn’t necessary.  He said his team of SME’s (Subject Matter Experts) could handle the entire adoption and quality validation of the third party software.  Fortunately, I had the Global Head of IT supporting my position, so my position stayed in place.

Using Kanban based techniques, I was able to make the software testing process visible to the R&M Project Manager and his team.  When first receiving the software, my team of QA specialists quickly discovered and exposed hundreds of product issues that the R&M Project Manager and his team of non-technical experts missed.  These weren’t just small usability issues, but complete show stoppers where the software would block any further progress of a specific workflow or even crash.

After going through an intense resetting of expectations and through continued daily visualization of issues and related tasks with the vendor team, we were able to build out a realistic schedule and deliver to it with a high quality solution, now placed in practice.

The key here is to quickly expose and visualize your work in a manner that everyone can see.  This can lead to agreement rapidly to further expand in delivery.