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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Root Cause Analysis – Core Competency

Related to removing impediments is the skill of identifying root causes, typically called Root Cause Analysis (RCA) within the technical world.  Some Project Leaders (be it a traditional Project Manager, Scrum Master or something in between) may believe that RCA is really a skill that the team has full ownership and that the Scrum Master should simply connect people with the right resources to either swarm or focus on the right path to resolution, but believe that approach is short sighted.

An experienced Project Leader will be like the Larry King of root cause investigation, asking questions to determine the signs of where a root cause may be found.  Project Leaders should help “connect the dots” like Steve Jobs has been famous for saying in his Stanford Commencement address in 2005 (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html).  Connecting the dots isn’t just about product vision or strategy but finding the missing part that is blocking the team from completing the blocked task.

Confident many reading this are already thinking along these lines, so I’ll state that there are times with the Project Lead will have no clue about the root cause and should instead play the role of observer so they gain more experience on helping identify trends for future issue resolution and impediment removal.

Weatherman and Forecaster

Good project managers (and Scrum Masters) consider themselves like project “weathermen” — they report the current project conditions and forecast the future as accurately as possible.

One important aspect of a weatherman (or weatherwoman) is to escalate quickly and effectively.  The project manager should have a “sixth sense” or intuition when a project is going down a bad path and this isn’t an easy skill to learn.  It truly comes from experience with trial and error.  The key as a Project Manager is to be bold and don’t be afraid to inquire on anything that appears to be going too slow and not clear on progress.  Look at my blog on “The Importance Visibility” for a way to help quickly identify issues.

​However, sometimes only through being the “Larry King” of questioners can a PM dig up all potential issues and address them before they become critical.

Does Empathy Matter in the Workplace?

It’s very common in software engineering to recognize there is a right way to do things and then there is everything else.  Often, that “everything else” is the wrong way to do it.

For instance, using no design pattern or an incorrect design pattern (i.e. a behavior pattern for a concurrency problem) would be “everything else”.

Typically, a team will do things for a very specific and logical reasons.  A Scrum Master should not immediately assume a team member is “doing it wrong”, instead keep an open mind and determine the situation and logic behind what was chosen.  For example, have members of the delivery team hear the reason during a breakout session from a daily scrum.  Then have the team decide if the reasoning is acceptable, keeping empathy and “trying on the other person’s shoes” helps foster trust and transparency.  If they are doing it wrong, at least they can find out why and come to an agreement.

As a servant leader, the Scrum Master should promote and encourage empathy within the team, but at the same time recognize that there is always room for improvement.  There is a balancing act that should be made for picking where to make the most improvements and that can be identified, organized and prioritized during retrospectives.

Keep in mind that not assuming someone is “doing it wrong” without empathy even if they really are doing it wrong.  Give them the benefit of the doubt and show empathy when showing mistakes or oversights to others.  This will build team productivity and as a result, increase velocity and team value.