Too many tasks

I have a favorite trick as a project manager. I am looking for team members that come in early in the morning, working very concentrated all day and go home late. If they do not deliver anything in time, I know how to help them. They are stuck with too many tasks!

Behavioral science show what I intuitively found out myself, if you try to do more than one task, juggle between tasks, you’re going to have a lot of problems to deliver anything in time.

With increasing number of tasks the overall efficiency change (black %) and the efficiency for each tasks is really low (red %).
With increasing number of tasks the overall efficiency change (black %) and the efficiency for each tasks is really low (red %).

This is how it works. When you start a new task you have a ”get ready” phase that takes time. Usually it involves collecting data, reading results from earlier work and focusing on the task at hand.
The next thing is actually doing the task. When you run out of time working with the task or are done, you can’t just leave it. You have to close the task in a way that lets someone else continue or use the result.

Let’s say you work on a schematic for a new PCB board. To start you need to find and study the requirements, as well as mentally go into a mode were you focus on design. This may take a few minutes. Then you start your design work. Lets say it’s lunch and you need to pause the design work. You can’t just leave the computer with no action. If you do you will loose a lot of time to get started after lunch again. You spend a few minutes to close the work in a known state that will reduce the start up time. Then you go to lunch.

Now let´s say that you are working on four boards at the same time as you have meetings, coffee break and lunch to manage. How long time will you spend doing work on the boards?

Behavioral science says that you will spend approximately 30% of your time on the boards, together. This means that 7,5% or 36 minutes on each board. This is not a lot of time…
A different strategy would be to do just one board until it is done. Then go for number two and so on. Same behavioral science predicts you spend 70% on each board with this strategy. This is a great improvement; you will deliver a lot faster if you focus your efforts.

Let’s compare 5 tasks estimated at 10h of work each. Doing them in parallel with an efficiency of 30% will get them all delivered at the same time after 167h (almost pi times the expected 50h, right?). I often hear that work takes pi times longer than expected 🙂

If we do one task at a time, we deliver all tasks in only 70h! It is still more than the expected 50h, but 97h faster than to do them in parallel.
More important though, the first task is delivered after 14h, that is 153h ahead of time compared to do the tasks in parallel. In this case you get 153h head start to do the layout of the board.

My way of helping the team member that is working hard and don’t deliver in time, is simply to examine the list of stuff they think needs to be done in parallel.
I will sort it in order of the timing we need for the deliverables and tell the team member to focus on the first item on the list until it’s done.
I also work with R&D management to avoid meetings in the morning and before lunch. This creates a big block of time to do uninterrupted highly efficient work.

Make it simple, make a list that is visible with clear priorities and trust your team to do the right thing!

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