The end of multitasking as you know it

Multitasking doesn't work, yet it's a prized ability. Instead, learn how to manage interruptions so that they become part of your schedule

"My boss interrupts his interruptions with interruptions."

It's a common complaint, repeated recently by "DataBass," who, in a comment on last week's column, asked, "Would you please consider speaking for the industries where their IT people are SEVERELY Interrupt Driven?"

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Now Advice Line is about next-generation IT -- what IT will have to do in the future that it hasn't done in the past and what we'll have to stop doing in the future that we've been accustomed to doing in the past.

Something that won't change is principle No. 7 of the KJR Manifesto: Before you can be strategic, you have to be competent. The dreaded triple-I factor -- interrupting interruptions with interruptions -- is high on the list of what drives organizational incompetence. Next-generation IT can no more afford to be incompetent than this-generation or last-generation IT could, so ending the triple-I effect should be high on every CIO's to-do list.

The case against interruptions

If you need to demonstrate the damage interruptions do, either to employees who take pride in their multitasking abilities, or to managers who confuse their enthusiasm for the organization's priorities, here's an exercise that should do the job, courtesy of my friends at Realization. On a whiteboard, write:

MULTITASK

ABCDEFGHI

123456789

Have each participant copy them down on a piece of paper while you time them. Then have them do the same thing, only this time writing the first character of each line in columns (MA1), followed by the second character (UB2), and so on until they're done.

You'll find the second run is about 50 percent longer. Look at the results and you'll probably also find that they look more ragged -- like individually written characters, not words. Ask the participants what else is different between the two runs and you'll hear that the second one was more stressful, too.

This isn't one of those showboating B.S. demos, either. The second run is actual multitasking, not just something that vaguely resembles it to make a point. It requires the shifting of mental gears every time a participant changes to a different character string. That's multitasking in action.

Thus, multitasking -- interrupting interruptions with interruptions -- costs more, delivers worse results, and creates stress. Let's do it again! If evidence and logic ever persuaded anyone, that would be the end of it. Case made, case closed.

Given a choice between what evidence and logic dictate and what someone wants to believe, evidence and logic don't stand a chance. This won't help those whose interruptions are interrupted by interruptions in the slightest. Those who interrupt them will criticize them for their inability to multitask and go their merry way, looking for someone else to interrupt with their next bout of enthusiasm.

Protecting yourself from interruptions

Here's a simple technique, borrowed from the Kanban variant of agile development. It won't stop the interruptions themselves, but it might mitigate the damage.

What you'll do is buy a pack of large index cards and a box of pushpins. Every time you get an assignment, write its name on a card (it's a "user story" if you like the term), along with the name of the person who told you to work on it, who it's for, and how long you expect it to take, sans interruptions. Tack it to your cubicle wall in a column on the far left.

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