The question of whether multi-tasking works to increase productivity comes up frequently at our house. What can I say? I have a teenager. This age bracket of our species has taken multi-tasking to new heights with ear buds, television, blackberry and homework all going at the same time.
My experience is that multi-tasking does not work well. I define multi-tasking as participating at one time in two or more activities that each require our attention. Thus talking on the telephone and typing a report is multi-tasking. Similarly making dinner while helping a school child with home work is multi-tasking; both require your attention in order to be completed. If your attention is distracted from your task, it is unlikely that you will complete it well. Your phone mate may perceive you are distracted or merely wait patiently for your attention to return to his/her question, the report may have errors.
Time layering or time deepening is a strategy that does work. I define time deepening as organizing two or more tasks that do not require our attention to be accomplished simultaneously. If many layers are being developed, only the top layer can take your attention while the other tasks are accomplished without your input or attention except to get them started. Home managers have known this strategy for ages: wash the laundry and hang to dry – while drying, mix bread and leave to rise – while drying and rising cut beef/vegetables and set stew to simmer – while drying and simmering, knead bread and set to rise – while drying, simmering and rising, mend clothes. Project managers differentiate between those tasks that must be accomplished in sequence and therefore are time and order sensitive versus those tasks that can be accomplished at the same time therefore layering tasks.
If you work from home you may already layer your time without realizing that you are using this strategy: put on laundry, take out dinner meat to thaw, set coffee to drip, turn sprinkler on lawn – pour coffee, set to work on report. One hour later you turn over laundry, turn over meat, move sprinkler to back lawn, refill coffee and back to report.
You get the picture. Try it. How many layers can you build into your time?