I once read of an efficiency study done for an airplane repair company. They couldn’t understand what took so long to complete the repair on airplanes. When they dug into where the bottle neck was, they discovered that the hold-up was with the engineers. The problem wasn’t because there were not enough engineers; the problem was that the engineers were constantly being interrupted for issues that needed immediate attention. As they dug into why this was a problem, they discovered that on average an engineer would lose 15 minutes of productivity every time he switched tasks.
To better draw out the scenario, an engineer would be engrossed in his project at hand. The lead on a job would enter the office with a question or an obstacle from the floor. The engineer would have to mentally change gears from the task he was on, re-orient himself to the problem at hand, resolve the problem, dis-engage from the problem he just fixed, again re-orient himself to what he was working on before, and again begin work. That whole process of disengage, orient, engage, disengage, re-orient, and re-engage actually lost 30 minutes of productivity because he changed tasks twice. 15 minutes per task change.
To eliminate the interruptions, they defined what items were appropriate for interruption. It was a very small list. Everything else was placed into one bin and the engineer cleared out the items in batches two or three times a day instead of at random times.
Multitasking is a myth. Numerous studies have shown that the human mind cannot focus on more than one thing at a time well. In reality, what we call “multitasking” is to constantly move our attention from one activity to the other. This is easier when some activities only require muscle memory (like driving and talking with a passenger), but decisions that need to be made often get overlooked. Ever been heavily engaged in a conversation and miss your turn or run a red light? It’s a great example of our inability to multitask. You can keep the car on the road (muscle memory) and carry on the conversation. But depending on the intensity of the conversation, we might end up arriving late or getting a ticket (or worse).
A surgeon in the operating room must focus on the task at hand. He does not have time to run throughout the operating room monitoring blood pressure, pulse, and all the other details required to keep the patient alive. He gets and requests occasional updates from the systems and people in place to make sure the patient continue leading the procedure.
Throughout your day, find the times to check into the system (email, phone, etc). Put your own personal system together to allow you to focus on the task at hand. Turn off your email notice. Close the Facebook in the background. Let the voicemail get the phone.
If you’re looking at taking on multiple projects, become a plate spinner. Determine your project and focus on it until it is ready to be set on auto-pilot, delegated , or performed on muscle memory. Once the project is set to auto-pilot, it only takes a glance to verify that the system is still operating. Now take on the next one.
David Bryant Mitchell is a business coach and consultant that works with business owners and managers to create momentum in their business with strategies and tactics that they can implement today. These strategies are based on the five foundations of business: Marketing, Leadership, Operations, Finance and Systems.