Dear PM Advisor, November 26, 2012

Dear PM Advisor, My solution to the many project demands on my time has been to heavily multitask. Yet I seem to fall further and further behind. What am I doing wrong?

Running in circles in Princeton, NJ

Dear Running,

Ahh, the evils of multitasking. A few years back I saw a great presentation on this subject and have added it to my repertoir. Let me see if I can reproduce the theory.

Multitasking is a great idea when you cannot go further with one task and move to another rather than wait around until you can continue with the first task. Or if the two tasks do not interfere, like listening to books on CD while driving to work and back.

Where multitasking falls apart is when people have to stop one task to start another. Like when completing tasks on projects.

Take our typical poor team member who is working on three projects and is responsible for several tasks on each. Every PM wants her to work on his tasks first so they harass the team member operating on the squeaky wheel gets oiled theory. Teh Team member responds by dropping one task to work on the other until a new PM comes by griping. Let's look at this situation graphically.

I'll even make it less complex by assuming each PM only needs one task completed this week. (Wouldn't that be nice?) So our team member promised each PM to complete the tasks in a couple of days, knowing each should only take a day and a half. Left to her own devices, she could complete the tasks like this and leave early on Friday:

Unfortunately, she keeps getting bugged by the PMs and changes her strategy to switch from one task to the other, so that she is able to tell PMs, "I'm 1/3 done with your task, 2/3 done with yours etc."

Look at what this accomplishes, however:

Note that task 1, instead of being complete on Tuesdsay afternoon is now completing on Thursday afternoon. Task 2 goes from Thursday morning to Friday morning and task 3 completes at the same time. We can assume that each task has someone waiting on it to get started on their own task so each one of those tasks has now been delayed. Only task 3 finishes at the same time. This replicates throughout the organization causing massive delays.

But even this is optimistic. There is a lack of efficiency when you drop one task and pick up another. At a minimum you are closing one file, looking for and opening up another then finding your place again. Here's what this looks like:

Now we see that every task loses by multitasking.

We need to change people's attitude from: 'How many tasks have I started?' to 'How many tasks have I finished?' For exactly the same reason as why we want management to change their attitude from: 'How many projects have I started?' to 'How many projects have I finished?' We gain value from finishing tasks, just as we gain value from completing projects.

So what is my practical advice to you? Determine, hopefully from some published project priority list within your organization, which projects are most important to the organization. If no list exists, make up your own priority list. Then determine, by asking the PMs, which tasks you are doing fall on the critical path of each project. Using this information, prioritize your tasks for the week as shown in the top diagram. Then perform the tasks as prioritized. Only switch tasks if you are forced to halt one task by outside forces.

Good luck,

PM Advisor

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