April 26, 2022

How to Manage Time While Working on Multiple Projects

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How do you maintain productivity and work effectively?  This is probably one of the most asked questions I come across in Scrum workshops.  And this issue not only pertains to Scrum/Agile teams but to so many other industries across the board as companies look to multi-teaming to optimize resourcing. In the IT industry, it is the norm and almost 95% of developers are in more than one team.

Having studied the Scrum Framework intensively, my first assumption will be that the best practice is to have dedicated team members focused on one sprint goal and one product goal at a time.

But Scrum doesn’t dictate that you can’t work on multiple teams.  Understandably companies don’t always have the luxury of working on one project at a time and capable resources are limited, thus optimizing resources across teams makes sense. But doing so could come at a cost, especially to the guy on the ground having to manage his day across teams, projects, stakeholders, meetings and trying to have some level of a personal life!

In his book on the psychology behind software management, psychologist Gerald Weinberg writes about the impact of context switching.

Here’s a graph illustrating this:

As human beings, we often pride ourselves on our ability to multi-task and wear it as a badge of accomplishment.  We never take the time to think about the consequence of frequent context switching on our productivity and output.

According to Weinberg, each additional task you switch between reduces your overall productivity by 20–80%:

  • When you focus on one task at a time, 100% of your productive time is available.
  • When you switch between two tasks at a time, 40% of your productive time goes towards each task and 20% is lost to context switching.
  • When you switch between 3 tasks at a time, 20% of your productive time goes towards each task and 40% is lost to context switching.

So how do you manage this?

1. If you can, advocate for working on and finishing off one project at a time. Share this metaphor from Scrum trainer Johannes Geske with your management.

2. Build a habit of single-tasking throughout the day.

3. Time-block your calendar to clearly visualize your daily tasks and focus time (example):

4. Set out large chunks of time for deep focus especially if you are working on more demanding tasks/projects.

5. Select a dedicated but realistic time to attend to emails, admin, calls and meetings.

6. Make everyone aware of your focus time, communicate it by means of “headphones on” or “notifications off” or set your Teams/slack status to “do not disturb” – be clear and firm about it.

7. Start small and set a timer.

8. Give the Pomodoro technique a try, working in 25min blocks with 5min breaks in between. Every 4 blocks you take a longer break.  Make sure you spend the 25 mins focused on a single task, preferably one that can be accomplished in that block.  Pomodoro works off the assumption that distractions do happen, so use the 5 mins to stretch your legs and check your email/WhatsApp before getting back to work, instead of switching mid-task.

9. Instate “Themed “days, if possible, where you focus on one big task or one project for the entire day. This reduces the need for context switching.

10. Remove as many distractions as possible, especially during deep focus, put your phone in another room and switch off email notifications, close the door.

11. Remove as many “nearly completed” tasks as possible from your day. If you have unclosed tasks at the end of the day, tackle and close them first the next day.

12. Include rituals or routines to indicate the closure of a task for example a cup of coffee or a leg stretch. This enables your mind to let go and focus 100% on the next task.

13. Use regular breaks and rests to recharge, away from your laptop.

14. Take time for reflection at the end of the day, look at the number of tasks you managed to close (and make sure your reward yourself for it!).

15. Get into the habit of planning ahead of time, usually at the end of the day. This way you can prioritize meaningful work and tasks for the following day.

16. Ensure you END your day, shut down the laptop, close the office door and have quality time with your loved ones.

All changes take effort.  For lasting changes, take small steps, and start with implementing only one or two of the suggestions.  Communicate the changes you are making and stick to them.  Hone them to fit your work environment and situation and steadily implement more positive changes to increase your productivity in this crazy demanding world of IT!

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Madelein Malherbe
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