THE ART OF MULTITASKING

I work for Philips Healthcare, a business of Philips that sells medical equipment to hospitals. To build these products, we follow Agile Methodology. Some of the software engineers might be aware of this term. This way of work primarily focusses on collaborative work which means the entire team to get together to complete a particular task which is the highest priority. And then move on to next task. This means that every team member is capable of doing any work with equal competence – which is never true. Each person has his/her own competency and preference for the kind of work. So, keeping this in mind – a term becomes very important in Agile methodology “WIP”. WIP stands for “Work in Progress”. It is a number that defines that at any given point of time how many work items is the team busy with. For a team of 5 people, WIP should never be more than 7 or 8. Again it depends on the competency of the team members and the complexity of the work items.

There are various case studies that prove that if WIP is too low – the team has too little work and is demotivated. If WIP is too high – the team is too overloaded and have to switch the context so much that their productivity declines. WIP has to be just right. It should keep the team busy, interested in work with optimum load and highest productivity. One of my roles in my job is to keep the WIP in the limit, not just of the whole team but also of each team member. No team member should ever feel that he/she is too overloaded with work or is getting too confused because of handling too many things.

Sorry, for too many corporate jargons from Software development. When I was asked to write on this topic, the first word that struck me was “WIP”. When I took over this role and understood this concept, I attempted to apply this also to my personal life. Yes, I multi-task and sometimes it is too much. “What is my current WIP? Is it optimum?” These two questions usually bring me back to the reality.

For example – currently, I am writing this article while sitting on a crowded bus going from work to home. My WIP is 2 – because I have to think and write this article on time and I also have to keep my eyes on the road to make sure that I don’t miss my stop. This WIP works because one is an active task (writing) and another one is a passive one (keeping an eye on the road). While multitasking, there can always be only one active task. It is not recommended at all to do more than one active task at the same time. Although we could do one active and multiple passive tasks at the same time. Taking the same example – if I switch on the music on my phone it would become another passive task. If while writing on the bus, I also start talking to my mom on phone – will it work? No. Because talking and writing will both be active tasks. I will have to stop writing now if my mom calls me on my phone.

Now the catch is that sometimes an active task slowly becomes a passive one. For example – for me driving is an active task because I am not a very experienced driver. I cannot even listen to music while driving because it distracts me from the road. However, my husband can also talk on the phone while driving (yes, it is illegal I know – but he can). This is because driving has become a passive task for him because of his practice. Similarly, for a lot of women cooking becomes a passive task. We just are so experienced in this area that it doesn’t take our conscious mind to be completely empty to do the task of cooking. At that stage, we can also combine cooking with teaching our child (a lot of us do that).

Problem with multi-tasking is that sometimes we make a task passive when it deserves to be active. I realized this when I learnt about “Mindful eating”. Mindful eating is a concept which emphasizes the need to be completely aware of what is happening inside our mouth and body while we are eating. Ideally, we should chew every morsel of the food at least 20 times. We should take in the colour, taste, smell of the food completely before swallowing it (eat with all 5 senses). We should listen to our stomach when it signals us to stop eating. All these can happen only if we stop making eating a passive task. However, I know that eating is the first task that we learn to make passive. Eating while watching TV, eating while working, eating while chatting with people. When eating becomes a passive task, we do mindless eating which is the primary cause of overeating and leads to all the side effects related to it.

Another task that we must not multitask is spending time with our loved ones. I am sure most of us are guilty of this. When the child is explaining what happened at school – we are checking our Instagram feed. When our spouse is complaining about his/her headache – we are focusing on the TV. When mom is talking, we are also busy with our heads on the laptop.

Multi-tasking is not bad. It just has some rules.

Rule no. 1 – Never try to do more than one active task at any given point of time

Rule no. 2 – Carefully choose which task is supposed to be active and which can be passive

That’s all. And you will master the art of multitasking.

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