People who believe they can multi-task effectively share a dangerous delusion: that paying attention to several things simultaneously actually increases their available attention above 100 percent, so they can still focus fully on every task. This is logical nonsense.

- via "Slow Leadership"

I've recently come to a similar conclusion about my attention span and organizational capabilities. I had noticed that I was starting to deal with hundreds of small things on a near-simultaneous basis. All very tactical. Almost all "low yield". Things like slavishly attending to voicemail and email, responding to individual customer inquiries, shepherding office renovation details and so on.

Each of these jumped onto my radar and demanded to be dealt with. Often, they would present themselves as "very large problems", when in fact, they were just a series of "little issues". Few of them actually needed my specific attention and probably could have been dealt with more effectively by other people in the organization.

This only became a problem when I started opening the door to these kinds of details last summer when I took over responsibility for what became the retail services team. At the time, there was no team - in fact, no staff at all except for a small customer help desk team. That meant that I had no choice but to do everything else, and all the little problems slid right in to fill up my time.

Almost a year later, staffing is in place, and there's no reason for me to keep the door open to all of the tiny little things that are vying for my attention. Realizing this a month or so ago, I began to very aggressively back out of a lot of these excess commitments, and more importantly, trying to stay focused on solving one really big problem at a time. For instance, rather than pitching in and answering specific customer complaints and help requests personally, I pushed for the implementation of clearer and cleaner escalation processes so that everyone on the team could redirect misguided customer requests to the right desk so that specific subject matter experts could sort out the issue.

The biggest challenge lies with staying focused on what the big issues are, and what their relative priority is versus all the other big issues. This is most certainly a moving target and not a day goes by when I don't re-evaluate these priorities based on discussions with the team. I'm finding that the specifics of the priorities is less important than making sure that everyone on the team has a shared understanding and ownership of the priorities.

In addition to keeping the lines of communication and understanding open, I've also taken some smaller steps to ensure that staying focused is much more possible. This includes;

  1. Turning off my phone ringer. The phone is a constant source of interruptions. Talking to people is important, but this has to happen in context of everything else that is going on. When I'm working on the big issues, I'll turn off my phone ringer. When I'm not working on the big issues (such as when I'm getting caught up on email), I'll screen my calls using the callerID function. Very rarely now do I actually pick up the phone just because it is ringing.
  2. Turning off my email. I used to live in my email client. This was rarely productive, although it meant that I would rarely have any outstanding email to deal with. It also meant that people would get almost an instant response from me no matter how important or unimportant their message was to me and my goals. Nowadays, I'm really trying to limit my email time to an hour or so per day, first thing in the morning. Sometimes I'll also check it a couple of times in the afternoon, but my email client is no longer open by default, and I've turned off the "automatically check for new email every five minutes" feature. If I don't consciously check my mail, I don't get it.
  3. Turning off my RSS reader. My RSS reading time is now at the bottom of my list of priorities. I find the information to fragmented to be useful for much of anything. Most blog posts are just tiny little snacks of information - far too small to be satisfying. If I can't spend time following the links and doing additional surfing, I won't fire up my newsreader. That means I have more than 1000 unread items in my aggregator and I really don't care if that number gets smaller or bigger.
  4. Spending more time with my todo list. Instead of automatically opening my email client when I login and letting the constant stream of messages determine what I spend my time on, I've set up my macbook so that my todo list opens up automatically instead. This way, I've got a constant reminder of what the big issues are and what I need to do to deal with them. A very helpful change to my workflow.
  5. Spending more time with people. Discussions matter. Real discussions I mean. Email, web pages, etc. can only get you so far. My goal is to spend at least 50% of my day away from my screen and in front of people. This is hard, but worth it.
  6. Practicing my listening. This is rooted in my post on charitable listening. I've found that by setting an overriding agenda of real listening, that I'm learning more about what we need to do. This contrasts with my previous approach of attempting to set and enforce an agenda, but is much more effective provided that you can go into a dialogue understanding what your primary objective is. This requires additional preparation, but is definitely worthwhile. If you can't go into a discussion knowing what your objectives are, you can't effectively listen to the other party and you certainly can't collaborate with them in any sort of a meaningful way. With a deep understanding of your true objectives, you can easily listen for points of compromise and common ground upon which to base a plan of action that helps you accomplish those objectives. This works in both directions as well - understanding what the other participants are looking for and helping them achieve their objectives. None of this can be done without employing clean, charitable listening skills.
  7. Iterate, iterate, iterate I'm really trying to spend a lot of time iterating my lists, documents, views, strategies and so on. I'm finding that the only way that I can truly act on the input I've received throughout the day is to incorporate them into the artifacts that I'm working with. Mentally storing them away isn't enough. The viewpoints I collect throughout the day must be explicitly worked into my work product. If they aren't then I can't effectively share them, in context, with the people I work with. And if I can't do that, then why am I bothering them with any sort of attempt at discussion and collaboration in the first place? This is also hard, but worth it. Turning your work product into living documents is extremely powerful.

The sum of these approaches has helped me create a very serial workflow. By reducing my dependancy on technology, I've freed up more time for discussion and interaction. This leads to more fertile input for whatever it is that I'm working on. Incorporating that input into my documents, leads to a better basis for future discussions, which leads to more interactions. The eventual output of all of this is that I'm finding it much easier to help my people understand our operational context, so that they can more effectively contribute to the overall goals of the team.

The real trick lies with staying focused on executing the process and resisting the obvious distractions. I'm a neophyte practitioner in the regimen I've outlined, but I am seeing signs that I'm making progress. My goal is to repeat these tactics long enough to turn them into a real habit and avoid the risks associated with believing that I can multi-task my way through the day.