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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Engagement Ceremony

If there is ever an art to delivering technology, it’s about knowing when and how to prioritize events as they unfold.  Some events are small and may only need an email.  Others, a simple test or instant message may do.  At higher levels of modality are direct phone ​calls with screen sharing, Skype, or even face to face meetings.

A recognition of when there is not enough or too much ceremony for the roles involved.  If a dozen emails go by for something that would take two minutes to discuss, then using email is the wrong modality.  Sometimes, that isn’t clear until the communication unfolds, but immediately change the mode if you see that it is dragging down in the form of communication provided.

Also, too much communication can happen.  If a meeting takes up more time than actual doing the work or logging the work is taking up more time than just doing it, the process should be questioned.

​It’s all about business alacrity and a good project manager, and any business professional, should always look for ways to reduce waste in delivery.