When I’m working, I usually have two monitors set up, Slack alerts flashing in the corner of one screen, my phone sitting next to me, and my colleagues chatting around me. I’m pretty much in information overload all day, every day.
The way we work, however, has changed. Where we used to book meetings and send long email chains, we now make decisions collaboratively, through chat platforms. For remote workers, often the only way to get information is through notifications - there is no one to stop by their desk to chat.
“What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients.
Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
- Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize Winning Economist
This increase in information requires new skills to handle. If we aren’t purposeful in our focus, we can easily get swept away in the chaos. Instead of allowing ourselves to be pulled in a million directions, we need to manage our attention wisely. This skill of purposeful focus is called “attention management”. In this article, we walk through the dangers of multitasking for developers and give you four new tools for bringing your focus back to the job at hand.
Humans can’t multitask, even though we think we can.
“It’s okay, I can multitask.” - you, probably.
Unfortunately, we can’t. Even though most of us think we’re being super productive by keeping track of multiple streams of information, we’re actually reducing our capacity for work. Researchers at Stanford put self-described “super multitaskers” through a series of memory and focus tasks, hoping to discover their secret to managing multiple channels of information. What they found surprised them. Instead of discovering the secret of multitasking, they realized that multitaskers are actually not that productive at all. The multitaskers were constantly distracted and unfocused. They performed much worse than the single-taskers on all tests they were put through. One of the researchers explained that the multitaskers “couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”
Other studies have also documented the performance hit we take when responding to constant notifications and information. Workers distracted by email and text notifications experience a 10 point fall in IQ, a BBC study found. This is similar to the same level of impairment that occurs as a result of smoking marijuana.
And the issue is only increased for programmers, who experience a bigger cost of task switching. Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello, describes the trouble with multitasking programmers perfectly: “A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and call a lot, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code.” The moment you switch to a new task, this information becomes muddied with new context and data. If you try and switch back to the earlier environment, you’ll struggle to retrieve all the information you had available at your fingertips just a couple days before.
Convinced? If you’re willing to give up your multitasking habit, here are four techniques you can use to improve your attention management skills.
1. Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique is a tried and tested technique for single task focusing. It uses a 25 minute timer (traditionally shaped like a tomato, but it doesn’t really matter what it is) to break down a day into productive chunks of time, separated by short breaks. By focusing on one task exclusively for a set amount of time, Pomodoro practicers can ramp up productivity and eliminate attention poverty.
Want to try it out? Start by creating a list of tasks that need to be completed, ideally that can be completed in one or two “pomodoros”, or 25 minute session. Choose one to start with, close out any other browser windows, mute notifications, set the 25 minute timer and get to work. Try to avoid any disruptions you can. When the timer runs out, take a five minute break, then reset. After four pomodoros, or two hours, it’s recommended that you take a longer 15 minute break. By breaking down tasks into short timeframes, it’s intended to keep attention and focus at a maximum.
Strict adherence to the Pomodoro technique mandates taking a break after each task. But I almost always find that once I start, I get into a flow and keep working for longer. Personally I only need the Pomodoro method to get started on productivity.
Break up all your tasks into a series of Pomodoros to reduce the desire to multitask.
2. Reduce Context Switching With Better Scrum Planning
The human brain is not designed for multitasking. When we switch between contexts (for example, moving from programming to email reading, or from QA tasks to answering a quick question from a colleague) it takes some time to fully re-engage. In fact, it’s estimated that the brain needs 25-30 minutes to get back to full productivity when switching tasks.
Scrum masters can help team members avoid context switching by planning full project days into the sprint. For example, instead of breaking up maintenance tasks between all team members, dedicate one developer to maintenance work on a rotational basis. This means every developer is able to focus their entire day on one task, instead of bouncing in and out for bug fixes, maintenance and customer projects. It reduces interruptions by customer-facing teams as well.
By minimizing the need for switching tasks, we can maximize productivity through better focus.
3. Clear Your Mind
The benefits of meditation are slowly being accepted by more and more corporate offices. GE and LinkedIn both offer employees free subscriptions to Headspace, a meditation app, as part of their perks and benefits. Headspace helps both new and experienced meditators improve their skills and offers a variety of guided meditations. They offer foundational series that include 10 minute sessions and one-off “SOS” meditations for those moments when you just need… a moment. My current favorite themed meditations revolve around the theme of “productivity”.
And it’s backed by science. A recent study by the University of Washington found that ongoing meditation training “helped workers concentrate better, remember more of their work details, and stay energized and experience less negative moods.”
Increase your ability to focus on one task at a time by settling your mind.
4. Set Boundaries For Interruptions
Working in an office with an open floor plan can mean a lot of “side of the desk” meetings. Stacey might stop by on her way to grab coffee to ask about that new UI design. Brett swings his chair around whenever he gets stuck and needs to rubber-duck. Manuel is just a big gossip, so he will frequently interrupt whatever you’re doing just to chat.
How do colleagues know when you’re free for discussion and when you need to be left alone to focus? If you haven’t communicated clear guidelines, it’s impossible for them to know. Talk about your workflow with your team. Maybe it’s a physical sign that signals “do not disturb”. Or maybe if your headphones are on, you really need to focus. Whatever your sign is, make it clear that you’re “in the zone”.
Attention Management Is The New Time Management
We used to think our limiting resource was time - not enough time in the day to accomplish everything we need to do.
In today’s digital world where everyone can reach us at the touch of a button, time is no longer the issue. Instead - it’s our attention. We’re suffering from attention poverty.
But the good news is that new tools, techniques and work habits can help teams hone their attention management skills. By deliberately avoiding context switching and reducing interruptions, even the most connected employees can maintain their productivity.