The Multitasking Mirage

So many projects, so little time.  Individuals, project teams, or whole engineering departments often find themselves overbooked and juggling multiple projects in the effort to keep them all on track.  This is chasing a mirage.  Multitasking doesn’t reduce delay; it creates more delay and spreads it among all the projects.

Here’s an example. Suppose the Red and Blue projects both need time from Amy, your best wireless designer.  She’s just started the Red project when the Blue project lands on her desk. 

Amy might want to put Blue on hold until she finishes Red.  That would be unitasking, and it would delay Blue.  Wouldn’t it?

But both projects are top priority with rigid deadlines.  In order not to delay Blue, Amy should divide her time “fairly” between both projects.  Shouldn’t she?

Let’s take a look.  The figure below compares how Amy might apply her time to Red and Blue by unitasking or multitasking. 

Multitasking doesn't speed up the Blue Project

The multitasking mirage is that multitasking reduces delay time on the Blue project.  But the first thing you notice is that multitasking doesn’t speed blue at.  Amy finishes it at the same time in either case.  This is because total wait time for Blue is the same in both cases.

Perversely, multitasking only creates wait time for Red.   This is waste, since it doesn’t help to speed up Blue at all.

And I’m not talking about the inefficiency and opportunity for error that comes from jumping back and forth between different projects.  That can be a significant cost, but it’s a topic for another post.

Back to the figure, what if Blue really does have an important deadline?  In that case, Amy should switch her effort to Blue once, only going back to Red when Blue is done.

What if Red and Blue are both due at the same time, maybe for a trade show?  You have to keep in mind that Amy won’t finish Blue any sooner with multitasking. With unitasking, you’ll at least finish Red in time for the show, even if Blue is at risk–Better than putting both projects at risk.

What can you do?  Of course, Amy should do only the minimum required for each project, no bells or whistles.  And it will speed up both projects if Amy can get some effective help, maybe with the more mundane parts of the work that don’t need her expertise..

To avoid multitasking, the first thing you can do is to show this figure to whoever is driving the multitasking.  If that person is your manager, be sure you explain that you’re not trying to avoid work, but that it’s best for the company to avoid the schedule waste of multitasking.  If that person doesn’t believe it, have them email me.  A big part of my job is changing managers’ minds.

Another thing you can do to stabilize priorities. Switch from Red to Blue once, and only once, if Blue really does need to be finished sooner.  Unstable, shifting priorities often result from stakeholders of different projects fretting that their project waits while the other project moves forward. 

I know that getting clear, stable priorities is a real challenge in many companies.  Managers who regard themselves as rugged and decisive can get weak in the knees in front of competing executive project champions.

If you can’t get management agreement on priorities, set them yourself.  Just focus on the Red project and tell your manager that it’s in the company’s best interest to at least finish Red quickly, because multitasking will not speed up Blue, and that you’ll start on Blue at the earliest possible moment.  Say that you’re applying onramp traffic control to prevent a traffic jam.

Are you suffering from multitasking?  Leave a comment–there may be another reader who’s already solved your problem.

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