Bad Multitasking, Talents and Productivity Sofware

An Open Letter to the Creators of OmniFocus further to the discussion on Twitter

What Is Bad Multitasking?

Bad multitasking is a situation when too many tasks/projects are active simultaneously. This leads to long lead times, poor quality and excessive fatigue. There are two mechanisms at work:

  1. ‘Task salad’.
  2. The mental cost of task switching.
Task salad
Task salad with task switching penalty

The only way to combat bad multitasking is to temporarily freeze enough work in progress (WIP) to achieve an optimal number of open tasks, without causing work starvation — since the workload-throughput curve follows the inverted U shape.

Throughput as a function of Work in Process (WIP) level

After freezing, the new lower WIP limit is to be observed and, should the need be, adjusted. Typically, people use Kanban to control WIP. (For in-depth explanation of flow management see Goldratt’s ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’.)

You Can Have a Talent to Create Bad Multitasking

Research by Gallup, popularized in Now Discover Your Strengths demonstrates that people have strong, nearly irresistible behavioral tendencies (talents), which can be moulded into strengths (positive expressions of talents, coupled with knowledge and skills). Gallup research singles out 34 such talent themes.

Some people are naturally well-organized, while some are not. “A highly organized and time-efficient person would be likely to have significant talents in the areas of Discipline and Focus,” says Kenneth A. Tucker, Gallup consultant in Managing Your Weaknesses. My strongest talent (nearly irresistible behavioral tendency) is Activator — “Let’s get started now!” Obviously, the flip side to Activator is the tendency to create bad multitasking — the pull towards immediate action is nearly irresistible. Lacking Discipline, Focus and related talents, while being strong on Activator, Learner, Command, Maximiser and Futuristic I have a non-talent for being organized. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

“A highly organized and time-efficient person would be likely to have significant talents in the areas of Discipline and Focus. But say you don’t.” — Kenneth A. Tucker, Gallup Consultant.

There are several productive ways to deal with your weaknesses, and one unproductive but common. The latter being trying to develop talents that you don’t have. This is frustrating, time consuming and simply doesn’t work. So what can you do?

  1. Avoid situations that require the use of talents you don’t have.
  2. Use complementary talents to manage around your non-talents.
  3. Partner with someone who has the required talents; trade responsibilities if helpful.
  4. Use systems — enter OmniFocus.

OmniFocus and Non-Talent for Time Management

People with Discipline and Focus talent themes will find the use of OmniFocus and other productivity software natural. They will develop and maintain perfect, ordered systems. But a great system it is, in the hands of people who seek organization and need it the most — those with non-talent for being organized — it becomes its own undoing.

A person strong on Activator, like myself, will overpopulate OmniFocus with projects and actions, and the software will happily oblige, due to its fantastic Quick Entry feature. Hundreds of active tasks and projects will lurk in the depths is its database — and further Collection is encouraged. Bad multitasking is rampant; not much gets done.

OmniFocus is simply not designed for people like myself with a severe non-talent for organization. But I think it can be improved.

A Proposed New OmniFocus Functionality to Fight Bad Multitasking

The missing feature is the functionality to set (soft and/or hard) limits on the number of active projects and tasks, globally and perhaps by context. I imagine the feature in the following way:

  1. I can set a maximum number of tasks and projects with Active status. Both soft (warning) and hard (can’t create more) limits should be available. The fields should be autopopulated with reasonable default numbers.
  2. When I create/activate a task or project, when a soft limit is violated a warning is displayed; when a hard limit is about to be violated a warning is displayed with the option to freeze either the oldest task/project (set status to On Hold) or the one being just created.
  3. The number of active tasks/projects is clearly visible throughout the app, and a visual reminder/dashboard of the status of WIP limits is easily accessible.

There are three basic rules of kanban:

  1. Visualize work.
  2. Limit WIP.
  3. Balance flow.

Currently, OmniFocus implements Rule #1. Adding WIP limits will implement Rule #2, which goes a long way towards creating an even more powerful system.

Your comments are welcome!

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