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To Do More, You Have to Do Less
By Mike Boyer Smith

Things always get done more effectively when you focus on them, but there are just so many things that you have to multi-task, right?

How do you reconcile this paradox? Here’s a recent productivity adventure…

Like you, I have more things to do on my various lists than I can get through in a reasonable amount of time. I can identify many of these as ‘backburner’ tasks, but unfortunately I can also identify many as ‘important’. So even if I blow out the backburner tasks, I still end up with too many important tasks.

Recently, I managed to prioritise my list of really important projects down to 7 projects. I decided that I would identify the next action for each and begin to progress them all.

But then I thought about it and tried to project (no pun intended) what would happen if I I took this approach:

For the sake of simplifying the exercise, we’ll assume that each project was made up of 4 1-day tasks and I was working 7 days per week on them.

Pushing ahead with all projects one day at a time, my productivity would look like this:

Multi-tasking Projects

So the first important project, project A, would finish in week 4, as would all the projects. i.e. NONE of them finish before week 4.

Now, these are important projects, and my definition of ‘important’ projects means that they may well relate to business or financial outcomes. So what if the completion of Project A was worth $10,000? This means I’ll get that $10,000 in 4 weeks. If all the projects were like this then week 4 would be a GREAT week, wouldn’t it?

But what if I focused instead? What if I took one project at a time and saw it through before moving onto the next? Then my productivity would look like this:

Multiple Projects - No Multi-Tasking

Now, I get at least 1 project payoff every week! This has to be better doesn’t it? Even if it’s not a financial payoff, we’re talking about important projects, so this means we achieve something important every week, rather than having 3 weeks of nothing then a big payoff. Furthermore, every single project finishes before it would have in the multi-tasking approach, except Project G, which finishes at the same time.

So what gives? Why do we get suckered into multi-tasking at all? So far I’ve come up with a couple of thoughts on this:

  1. We lack the ability to decide which project the highest priority – we can’t work out which one to start with.
  2. Some projects don’t lend themselves to this kind of focus e.g. getting fit – you can’t get fit in one week – you have to build fitness over time.
  3. It feels very difficult to identify something as important and choose to do nothing about it.

The reality is though, that trying to move too many projects forward will mean that none of them get done quickly. When that happens, it’s hard to feel productive. You need to close projects to feel really productive.

I’ve been trying this approach:

  1. Try to decide your prioritisation criteria without considering the actual projects you have on. E.g. You might decide that relationships are top priority.
  2. Apply these criteria to the important projects on your list. E.g. organising a family holiday might take priority over doing your tax return for example if relationships are top priority.
  3. If you still can’t decide, pick one at random and defer the rest.
  4. Do it.

The good thing about this approach is that it really doesn’t matter which project you start with. If you realise that you didn’t choose the best one to start with, just finish it anyway, then move on to the one you should have started with. They’ll both be finished faster than if you’d multi-tasked them.

The other payoff that I’ve found is that once I’ve decided to defer a project, I feel much more ‘in the zone’ about the project that I have decided to focus on. It’s all good.

Mike Boyer Smith has over 17 years’ professional experience in systems engineering and software development. Over this time Boyer has been worked as systems engineer, software developer, project manager, consultant and business manager.

For the last few years, Boyer has been Managing Director of a leading, Sydney-based software systems engineering business.

Boyer is intrigued by productivity, and blogs his thoughts and insights at http://www.theproductivityhabit.com. Boyer is also a regular guest lecturer on Theory of Constraints, program management and Critical Chain Project Management for the Macquarie Graduate School of Management’s MBA course.

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