Efficient Human Multitasking


I sometimes hear colleagues complaining that they can't get anything done, because they have too many tasks in their head. I've found that in order to increase the efficiency of my work I need a moderately large selection of pending tasks. This allows me to match the type of work I can do at a given moment with a task in the most optimal way.

Let me be clarify. Tasks that pass through my hands differ in requirments on concentration, time, location, and facilities. By juggling around tasks from a rich selection I can ensure that I often get a the chance to optimally match a task to chance I have to work. Consider, for example, requirements on concentration. It would be foolish to spend some quite hours in my office spell-checking a document, or coming up with a complext algorithm at a busy airport gate. Working on those tasks in the other way round makes a lot more sense.

Here is a list of typical work environments I find myself in and corresponding examples of types of tasks I try to keep at hand. The point to efficient multitasking is to match each task as closely as possible to the available work environment, planning ahead to have appropriate tasks available for upcoming work environments.

Work Environment When/where Suitable Tasks
Low concentration; interruptable Plane
Airport gates
Waiting for an appointment
Eating alone
TV playing in the background
Sort email
Spell-check documents
Take care of beaurocratic chores
Annotate photographs
Experiment with new software
Web surfing
Optimize graphical designs
Medium concentration Work office (during work hours)
Home office (when others are awake)
Fill-in pre-designed code
Fill-in outlined text
Implement test cases
Answer routine emails
Copy-edit printed text
High concentration Home office (when others are asleep)
Work office (very early or late)
Create an outline for a new publication
Debug code
Software design
Devise algorithms
Read complex papers
Broadband access Work
Near WiFi hotspots
Download email
Bibliography research
Work on code under configuration management
Access issue databases
Work on remote computers
System administration
Catch up with older tasks that required broadband access
Keep up with news
Lack of internet access In more areas than I'd like Write code
Write articles
Review books and articles
Organize files
Proximity in an area A specific building or office Meet people
Distribute articles and magazines
Fetch/send out snail mail
Sign paper documents
File paper documents
Return loaned items
No laptop Bus
Traveling very light
Read books, journals, and magazines
Read printed papers
Unable to read Car
Waiting in a queue
Listen to podcasts

Of course, as is the case with computer multitasking, there's also the case of having too many tasks chasing my attention. In such a situation I observe myself spending more time juggling tasks and deciding what to do, than actually performing productive work. In computing this is called thrashing.

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Last modified: Wednesday, July 19, 2006 0:00 am

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