Multitasking is a fallacy

Half an hour after arriving at the office, and Jared’s already fixed a nagging bug from yesterday. Feeling happy, he continued typing away at the keyboard. Until a small window slowly popped up with a “You have mail”. He pointedly ignored it… for about 30 seconds because his eyes kept flicking to the bottom right to stare at the innocent email letter icon at the taskbar.

Jared breathed in deeply and sighed, wondering what the interruption was. Oh, it’s Evil Email Ellen. This time, she had trouble logging in to a web site (3rd time this week!) developed by Jared, and asked for help. She’s also emailed her colleagues, her boss and even her boss’s boss. Jared’s surprised she didn’t let the cleaning lady know about it.

Since Ellen gave only an “I cant log in!! Pls advise.” with no screenshots and no error messages, Jared calmly composed an email query asking for more information. As soon as he clicked the Send button, the phone rang.

Picking up the phone to say “Good morning”, Jared began listening attentively to the rational and reasonable requests by Tenacious Tester Tammy. She was done with her current tests and required Jared’s help to reset some data. “Ok, no problem,” said Jared, and put down the phone.

“Uh Jared, can you come over for a sec?”

Othello the Obnoxious Oaf had stood quietly behind Jared, waiting patiently for him to finish the call. Already undergoing a mental meltdown, Jared forced an “Ok”, and followed Othello to his desk.

“I can’t seem to get this to work,” Othello pointed indignantly at the mess of code shown on his monitor. Jared gave the code a quick glance and found the error. As he began contemplating the choices of strangling Othello, patiently explaining the cause and cure for the error, or simply taking over the keyboard and just type in the solution, Jared’s conscience intruded and Jared began pointing out the parts of code to be changed. Halfway through the explanation, Jared heard his phone ring. Finishing with a “follow this example, and copy this chunk over here”, Jared walked quickly back.

“Oh hi Ellen, how can I help you?”
“Hi Jared, I tried logging in just now, and it worked! What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh you must have! I really needed that analysis report, and I got in!”
“… Yes, I did fix something… Was that report okay?” Jared sighed, eager to end the conversation.
“Oh yes, thank you!”

Jared breathed in deeply, and was about to go back to his code when he remembered about Tammy’s request. And Othello came back with “Uh Jared, it’s still not working”. The innocent email icon also came back. Jared checked his email. It was Tammy, politely asking for her data reset. Ellen’s there too (Jared’s heart gave a lurch), replying with a “Thank you for your help” (sigh of relief).

Deciding quickly, Jared led Othello back to Othello’s computer, and proceeded to give him explicit instructions on how to solve the error without actually typing the solution for him. Smiling at Othello’s “Thanks Jared!”, Jared turned swiftly and went back to his desk to prepare the data for Tammy.

After executing the final update statement on the database, Jared called Tammy to let her know her data’s ready. The now irritating email icon came back, with the lethal combination of Othello standing innocently close by. Jared glanced wearily at his watch. 11:37 am. This was going to be a long day…

Psychological studies suggest that multitasking undermines human efficiency, that we weren’t made to multitask. Despite anything you hear from managers, friends or job descriptions, multitasking is harmful. Being able to handle several things just means nothing gets done, just “handled”. Joel gave an excellent multitasking debunker example for programmers.

Stop multitasking. Your brain will thank you.

5 simple tips to meet project deadlines

Jared was halfway through developing that unbelievably cool application. The specifications were complete, the customer was pleased with the prototype of his user interface and everyone was doing what they did best. There was just this teensy little problem. Sometime ago, Jared had to go help out that fellow colleague with a programming task. Then there’s the time when his users seemed to conspire against him, and decided to take turns calling him with technical queries throughout the day.

Whatever the reason, Jared made a brief calculation and discovered that he’s starting to run out of time. Then he remembered some tips he read from an incredible web site.

1. Shut down your email
Outlook can be detrimental to your productivity. Having to constantly glance at the bottom right of your monitor to check if a new email came in will sap the focus out of you. Ignore people who call you up and say they’ve sent an email 5 minutes ago, and demands that you explain why you haven’t responded. Try checking once in the morning, once after lunch and one last time an hour before you leave work.

2. Go to the toilet often
It matters little if you have a strong bladder. Just go. Walk slower than usual on the way. Have a good look around the office. Take your time while washing up. Your goal is to get away from the computer, away from the task. Your body gets a little exercise and your mind experiences different sensations. All good impetus for igniting your creativity.

If you really want a good reason to go, just follow the next tip.

3. Drink more water
Your brain is already working at hyperspeed. Your body is aching from holding your special fast and furious typing stance. Drink more water. Eat proper foods. Cooling your brain and taking care of your body is important, because you can think better when you can physically keep up with your mental processes.

4. Wear a scowl
Monarch butterflies advertise their distastefulness with contrasting bright colours. Soldiers deter intruders with barbed wire fences. You can achieve the same effect with people who absolutely must bother you with some insignificant detail. Put on the meanest, angriest and most unforgiving scowl you can muster, and note the dropping number of unwanted guests.

5. Leave on time
This may seem counter-intuitive, but leaving work on time forces you to make the best use of your time while you are in the office. You are a responsible programmer, and so you will make sure that the project is still delivered to the best of your abilities. What you want is maximise your throughput instead of increasing the amount of time spent.

After Jared followed those simple tips, he was able to crank out tons of flawlessly elegant code. And lunch with his colleagues. And leave work on time. And manage to catch up with the latest tech news and blogs of his favourite authors.

As Jared was leaving work on the eve of the project delivery, he saw the unfortunate programmers a few cubicles away, mindlessly and desultorily going about their work, having forgone their lunch and now working overtime. Jared laughed (silently of course, as a form of respect for the others), shook his head and left with jaunty steps.