Monday, January 30, 2012

Single-Tasking Update (Week One)


As I described in my previous blog post I spent this last week single-tasking with the hopes that it would improve the efficiency and quality of my work.  

I wasn't sure how to go about this, so I spent time thinking about why I was trying to navigate so many things at once.  Essentially, the answer to this question is that, like many of you, I have so many tasks that comprise my daily work (and I will leave out the 24-hour shift of parenting and second-shift of domestic labor, but they often play a role in the problems of multitasking):  

Teaching: researching, reading, prepping, teaching, assessing, conferencing
Professional Development: researching, reading, writing, revising, collaborating
Service: reading, emailing, responding, collaborating, writing, meeting, advising

The other half of this problem, though, is that I have so much "flexible" time in which to accomplish these tasks.  Other than scheduled meetings and one face-to-face class, the large majority of my time is unscheduled, and those flexible times are the ones I fill with multitasking: perhaps the solution is that I need to better schedule my time, so I don't feel a need to do everything at once.  Because I love spreadsheets' ability to categorize and organize things, the first thing I did was to make a schedule of my plan to do all of those things, with the higher-priority items coded in dark colors.  

Is that snorting and knee-slapping I hear from the blogosphere at the omission of Saturday and Sunday?  I will be the first to admit that I will be unable to prevent work from spilling over into weekends, though I hope this process will help me recover some of my weekend work time.  

Problem solved, right?  Not so fast: I was well into the task of programming all of this into my Outlook calendar when I realized I would have to stay logged into email to remind me of the shifts from task to task.  I settled for printing a few copies and tucking them into visible areas at my workplaces.  

Day 1 worked well.  And even Day 2.  But I quickly realized that problem is not just scheduling my time:  the problem is also that the time all of those tasks take is not fixed, but variable.  This first week of class, I had little "grading" to do.  In a few weeks, it will be a much larger amount.  I don't have time to adjust my schedule every week in Excel and Outlook, and even if I would take secret joy in color coding my life this way, I cannot predict with absolute certainty whether it will take me 4 or 6 hours to give feedback on a set of essays.  

So my attempt at scheduling my problem away returned me to basic general practices:
  • Writing one email (or blog post or anything else) at a time.
  • Logging out of email (and Facebook and Twitter) while lesson planning, reading, grading.
  • Responding to email and discussion board questions at planned times, rather than all day long.
In addition, I turned off my sound notifications for email and Facebook on my smart phone.  I found I had a hard time not "checking in" every time I heard them.  

These practices actually seemed to make a noticeable difference immediately.  Logging out and logging in at designated times helped me focus on the task at hand. I felt as though I had a very productive week, and I only worked one half-day this weekend.  I do, however, dislike the emails I feel are lingering in my Inbox for far too long (3 hours!), but I am not ready to concede that is something I can't learn to accept.  In the mean time, I'm going to continue my single-tasking mission.  And though I am loathe to abandon my spreadsheet, it will serve as a "reminder" function for when I am derailed by meetings, tidal waves of grading, toddlers with high-grade fevers, or anything else for which I cannot plan.

If you have other tips for single-tasking (or multitasking) effectively, please share away!    

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