Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Let's Do It (Multitasking, Part III)

The other day in Multitasking? we talked about the mythical multitasker: a person with the ability to simultaneously undertake several activities without compromising any of them.

Yesterday in Multitasking! (Part II) I described ways that one could begin to effectively multitask (even if not actually multitasking) through a technique called resource management.

Today, we're going to look at doing the real thang.

NOTHING is Ever Used
After reading yesterday's post, you might have recognized a key implication of resource management, or more specifically about resources managed. Statistically speaking, most resources are never used. They sit idle 99.999% of the time waiting, aging and deteriorating (consider the household piano or a silver dinnerware set or the brain).

Even those resources that are used spend 90% of the time idle (consider your car or kitchen stove).

Seeing this and understanding it is a key to true multitasking.

You go on vacation. You rent a car for the week. You drive from the airport to the hotel. You park the car intending to use it throughout your stay.

The hotel is on the beach. It has a bunch of restaurants and shops.

A week later, you get in the car and return it to the airport. You reserved the car for a week. You drove it for an hour. A resource reserved for 168 hours was used for just one. It sat idle 99.4% of the time.

Perhaps you're thinking, "OK, but that would be exceptional. When not on vacation I drive my car much more frequently."

Let's go with that and consider the car that you drive more frequently.

Say you put the average 12,000 miles per year on the odometer. Driving at 30mph, it would take 400 hours to cover 12,000 miles. There are roughly 8760 hours in a year. 400 hours is 4.5% of 8760. At 30mph, your car would sit idle 95.5% of the time. Double the miles to 24,000 and the car still sits idle 91% of the time. Double the speed and the car sits idle 97.75% of the time.

We tend to oversubscribe resources and then never really use them. This is not a problem generally (well, unless you're an environmentalist or economist), but it can be problematic when the resource is say, you.

The first step in true multitasking is realizing that even when your schedule is overbooked, you probably spend 90% of your time idle: riding in cars, trains and planes; waiting in lobbies and lines; listening to people whose lack of clarity and mindfulness makes their getting to the point a 1%-of-the-time phenomenon.

So, even when you're 150% booked, you have 90% free time.

Once you come to a real understanding of this (it may take a while if you're resistant to seeing it or insistant that you are indeed overbooked), the second step is to figure out how to liberate the unused time trapped within the overbooked time.

The easiest way to start is to prepare. You know you're going to have down time during your up time, so be ready to make it productive. If you have a backlog of things to be read, keep at least some of them with you. If you normally insist on driving long distances, let someone else do the driving so that you can pop a Dramamine and get some work done. If you're meeting someone you know to be chronically late, check in with her just before your meeting so that you can spend your waiting-time actively and productively.

If you did nothing else but prepare to be productive during your unscheduled free time, you'd be amazed at how much more you might accomplish as a multitasker.

True Multitasking
I know what you're thinking. All we've talked about so far will only provide the effect of being a true multitasker. It's still not the real deal.

True, but if you were to put into practice just some of what I outlined above, you might decide that you don't really need true multitasking.

Of course you might still like to learn how.

Two Anchors
Observation: Tying together two anchors doesn't result in something buoyant.

Conjecture: Trying to simultaneously conduct two tasks, neither of which you're particularly good at, won't magically transform them into something at which you are good.

Assertion: The first step in good multitasking is good single-tasking.

You can't play a drum set well if you you haven't mastered each of the sub-tasks. You work your right foot on the kick. You work left hand on the snare. You work your right hand on the high-hat. You get comfortable with each subtask and then you slowly bring them together.

Becoming a good single-tasker is a prerequisite to attempting multitasking.

The IKEA Go-To Person
An important side-effect of mastering a single task (no matter how complex) is that it gets driven into muscle-memory (and its analogs throughout the body). Your hands know what to do. Your ears hear the note that your eyes see written on the page. Without looking or thinking, your hand reaches to turn down the stove as your ears pick up the pot reaching the point of boiling over. You perform tasks smoothly and effortlessly.

Consider your standard IKEA put-it-together-yourself bookshelf. The first time you put together a piece of furniture from IKEA, you follow the directions with religious conviction. You lay out all the pieces. You find their pictures in the directions and associate each piece with its part number. You put together sections in exactly the order specified. At each step, you read and re-read the directions to make sure you've got it right.

Two hours later, exhausted from concentration and focus, you have a book shelf that looks pretty much like the one you saw in the showroom.

Let's say that you wanted to be able to put together an IKEA bookshelf while having a philosophical debate. What would you do next?

Here goes. You walk into the kitchen. You grab yourself a cup of tea to restore your strength. You return to the living room, and... you dismantle the bookshelf and start again.

Nope, there's not another way. That's it.

Nope, you can't build something else from scratch. You need to take apart and rebuild what you just built.

Nope, you can't leave on it the books and plants you placed there after completing the project. They have to go somewhere else.

IKEA Take-two
To master the task, you don't simply repeat it. This time, you practice looking at the directions less frequently, but more intently taking time to register them in memory.

Each time you feel the compulsion to check the directions before taking the next step, you instead close your eyes and try to recall them visually.

You make a couple of mistakes that you backtrack and correct, without looking at the specs. A couple hours later you've got a bookshelf and you've become a better bookshelf put-together-er.

Now what?

Do it again, this time looking less or not at all at the directions and paying attention to other factors like tempo and sequence.

Eventually (after three times? after twenty times?), you can put together that bookshelf in your sleep. Not only that, but will be a lot easier to put together other articles of furniture.

Don't have an IKEA bookshelf. There are plenty of opportunities right in your home. How about taking apart the vacuum cleaner, cleaning out the grit and lubing all the moving parts? How about rebuilding the toaster? Rebuild the chainsaw. Rotate the wheels on the minivan and change oil.

By mastering many complex tasks, you gain the skills necessary to true multitasking.

Soft Focus
As you become really good at single-tasking, you find that you've transformed previously challenging  activities into effortless ones that require little thought. You start to simultaneously do things that were previously impossible individually.

At any point, one or another task may demand your full attention. However, like your car on vacation, those demands will be few and infrequent. The key is to make sure that your attention is directed to the tasks that require it at the time required for exactly the time required and no longer.

Doing this takes a form of awareness referred to as soft focus. Soft focus is how symphony conductors zero in on the third chair flutist's missed note while directing and hearing an entire orchestra. It's how lifeguards protect a beach full of swimmers quickly identifying any potential problems and intervening before they occur.  It's how cooks manage to prepare all the elements of a complex meal simultaneously, smelling that the steak is done, hearing that the pan is too hot.

In my experience, soft focus begins with rapid transition from task to task to task and then smooths into a general awareness like the transition of pages in a flip book gaining momentum and finding a steady groove. Soft focus only works when you've mastered the many tasks that you're monitoring. There's little use in attempting it until you have. Soft focus is often a by product of mastery that becomes hard to avoid. You just find yourself doing it.

Are You a Multitasker?
That's pretty much it.

Over the years, I've become a pretty good multitasker. I frequently perform with bands with whom I've never practiced playing songs I've never heard while managing the sound system. Our experience in Insurmountable Opportunity is a pretty good example of multitasking behind the wheel of a car. When I write software, I go directly from the verbal description of what's wanted to the code that implements it without any of the typical intervening steps (pictures, requirements, design specifications, etc.) much as one would when playing a new song by ear.

I can trace back my ability to multitask in any of these ways to the process I outlined above.

Although it may not be easy, it's really quite simple. It just takes consistent practice.

So, are you ready to multitask? Let me know how it goes.

Happy Wednesday,

1 comment:

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