Simplicity and the Single-tasking Project Manager

A few months ago, at a restaurant in Houston, I overheard a Senior manager (SR) interviewing a candidate (CD) for a project manager position. SR:”Tell me about your ability to multitask.” CD: “I single-task.  Multitasking project tasks and threads, in my opinion, doesn’t produce effective results.” SR: “I completely agree.  Multitasking is a joke.”  The men continued what appeared to be a successful interview for the candidate.

Another quote that struck me was from Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to his Son (letter 37): “A man is fit for neither business nor pleasure who either cannot, or does not, command and direct his attention to the present object, and in some degree banish, for that time, all other objects from his thoughts.  There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once ; but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”  Considering this advice was delivered in the 1740s, the advice is quite timeless and I could not agree with it more.  Good project managers focus – one task at a time.

Christine Rosen, in a 2008 article titled The Myth of Multitasking, stated that to Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one’s time; it was a mark of intelligence.

The fact is that while some will make the argument that the human brain does multitask well (it manages our breathing, heartrate, blood pressure, temperature, etc. all while we chew gum and walk), most of these are lower brain functions.  We don’t think about these (although I have to admit I’m still working on the gum and walking thing).  No.  Real scientists say we think about things one at a time – time-slicing our way through various tasks, quite different from a multithreaded processor that is simultaneously running multiple higher order tasks, counters, etc. in a computer. Need a neuroscientist’s opinion on this?

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”

Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

So, whatever you think you are achieving simultaneously…you’re not. A neuroscientist from MIT says so.  This means that the quality of your work as well as the duration of the actual project may suffer from your delusion that you can text, respond to Facebook posts, write your blog article, not be bothered by that annoying message that keeps telling you that you have a meeting in five minutes (that you have yet to prepare for), etc.  The best solution is getting rid of the delusion and focusing on single-tasking well.  Do tasks one at a time and when ready to release said task (e.g., when I’m done with research then I write the article), move to next task.  This pull model makes workers and especially project managers stay on time and on budget.

In his article, Avoid Unskillful Multitasking…, George Pitagorsky, PMP, refers to the constant shifting of work from task to task as “thrashing.”  This and multitasking create inefficient workstreams and poor outcomes for a project.  Pitagorsky states that a project management system is more efficient when workers/managers “pull” from a queue (e.g., a list of tasks necessary to complete a project) as opposed to the “push” approach by which workers are pushed a multitude of IMs, emails, additional projects, etc. to which they cannot devote singular attention.

He refers to noted Israeli physicist Eliyahu Goldratt in stating that “[Goldratt] addressed this issue in his work on Theory of Constraints and Critical Chain. The gist of the Theory of Constraints is that in any situation in which resources are a constraint for getting work accomplished it is better to moderate the flow of work so that the resources are not overloaded and forced to multitask. This is so because multitasking leads to inefficiencies. The inefficiencies are caused by stopping and starting tasks rather than completing them before moving on to the next task and/or by overtaxing the resources and forcing them to perform poorly.”

Pitagorsky further states “In addition to working too fast, performers multitask to manage an unmediated flow of work. Unskillful multitasking is inefficient. Starting and stopping a task in the middle and then coming back to it requires ramp up and ramp down. Ramp up is the process of reaching the optimal pace for the work. Ramp down is the process of documenting, filing and otherwise putting down the work being done so that when you return to it your ramp up time is relatively short. If you don’t spend time ramping down, ramping up is far more effortful.

Efficient work scheduling calls for performing tasks to logical completion points before putting one down to pick up another. When a task is completed and its deliverable is turned over to someone else for testing or editing, or when a point is reached where there is a wait for a dependency, then it is time to pick up another task.

In the end you want quality work coming in on time.  By reducing unnecessary multitasking (that constant push of work to managers), a 2007 article on the Theory of Constraints estimates that efficiencies are gained since interruptions and delays on individual tasks are eliminated producing a workflow managed more quickly and smoothly, and with typical results that companies could expect on the following:

  • On-time completions to 95+%
  • Project durations cut by 1/3 or more
  • Project output 25%-100%

Jeff, what do I do next?  I’m glad you asked.  It will take some practice, but you can become the great project manager you know you are by doing the following next steps:

  1. Don’t be inefficient – be a great single-tasker
  2. Avoid thrashing at all costs – it wastes time and puts you the worker/manager into a push mentality (as in you are no longer in control of your world – the best Project Managers are always in control of their worlds/projects)
  3. Be excellent one task at a time; repeat many times throughout the day. Make you the keystone project that if you manage well, will lead to excellent management of your other projects.
  4. Remember Lord Chesterfield: (paraphrased for brevity) Be attentive to the task or enjoyment at hand, but not both for which all will surely suffer.

I hope this article helps you become a better project manager, contributor or manager.  I hope you take advantage of the resources included in this article, which add fuel to the fire that the real superstars single-task knowing that multitasking brings on only chaos and poorly managed projects.  Cheers!

p.s., for more on Theory of Constraints as it applies to Project Management in an Agile environment check out Andrew Fuqua’s piece on The Theory of Constraints and Brooks’ Law.