Multitasking as the norm
It is almost 7 pm; it has been a day full of meetings. I am finishing an email, and a chat popup appears on the screen with a message from my colleague John:
“Hey Răzvan, can we talk?”
It sounds like it’s something serious.
“I need some advice from you. How do you handle multiple projects simultaneously? You are always busy helping the team and having meetings with the customers. But when do you have time to finish your tasks as well?”
He looks exhausted. His concern is that he cannot finish his various assignments without overtime or working on weekends. He wants to get more productive.
I share my secrets and daily routines, from managing emails and keeping notes to customizing Teams subscriptions to get notified only for important information. The key to discipline is using tools and letting them do most of your job.
After a couple of hours, he seemed excited about my tips, and he wanted to try out some of them. But I am still concerned about how he feels.
The next day, I attended an online meeting with a large audience — mainly junior and senior developers and some managers. I start observing them: how they interact, what they are doing, and how involved they are in the discussion. Many of them are obviously doing something else. What else could they be busy with?
I get an email notification. My pull request just got approved by someone in the same meeting as me. So, for sure, they are not scrolling Facebook or playing games. They are debugging, doing code reviews, writing an email, or chatting with the team or customer.
They were multitasking, the same thing I have done many times if the conversation does not involve me directly. It is even easier to do it while working from home.
But why do they multitask?
I don’t believe they are trying to be disrespectful, and the meeting doesn’t seem boring, but they are pretty essential to this meeting. I am not demanding them to be fully present and involved in the discussion, but still …
What concerns me is my colleagues’ sense of urgency to finalize their tasks during this meeting. Do they have an immense workload that can’t be finished in eight hours?
Or, to put it bluntly, are they being pushed to multitask?
There is no debate. Occasionally, there is a crisis. The website is down, or there is a security breach. Immediate action is needed. But most of the time, we set the rhythm of our work ourselves.
So ask yourself: Is this code review so crucial that it can’t wait ten minutes to finish my meeting? Can I answer Hannah’s question in five minutes after sending this email?
The urge to react quickly is natural. We don’t want to disappoint our team by not being available or to disappoint our customers by not finishing the task today. And we start putting pressure on ourselves by artificially increasing the assignments’ urgency level.
And because of that, we live in endless wartime.
Allow yourself to have peacetime
In his insightful blog post, Tasshin talks about distinguishing between peace and wartime at work. Each requires a different strategy to organize your day.
“Peacetime productivity is when you have room to breathe. All is well with the world. Your plans and goals make sense, and there are no big emergencies. Most importantly, you have enough margin in most or all of the most important areas of your life. You have time to do the important projects you need to for your work. You also have time to restore yourself personally: to take care of your emotional and mental health, to spend time with the people that matter to you.
Wartime productivity is when the unexpected hits. Perhaps there’s a big emergency: the website is down, your team’s product isn’t working as expected, or a customer is furious. Or maybe you’ve simply received a new piece of information that changes how you see the world and what you’re aiming to accomplish. In war, you may need to adapt or drop your normal productivity habits and systems. Ride the waves of chaos, trusting that you’ll return to normal when you can.”
And this makes total sense. Six years ago, we competed with three other companies for a multi-year contract with a big customer. We had three weeks to develop a Proof of Concept for a migration project of a legacy system.
Our manager created the ideal environment to focus entirely on this challenge. He booked a meeting room only for us, canceled all the company meetings, and arranged every lunch. It was wartime!
We had to bend the rules and do whatever it took to get it done. There was no time for coding standards, code reviews, standups, or maintaining a JIRA board. Sticky notes on a wall and over-the-desk continuous conversations were all we needed.
And it worked. Three weeks later, we won the contract!
It’s the leaders’ responsibility
I have been at war most of the time in my ten-year career. I handled multiple projects simultaneously, multitasked during meetings, and sent emails late in the evenings or weekends.
My actions were like a drumbeat of war, and my team joined it without me even noticing. I have fostered the Hustle Culture, glorifying overworking to the point it becomes a lifestyle.
And working like this for months can send you into burnout. I’ve also been there twice since the pandemic started. I now know better.
John left the company since we had the conversation in March. Even if he left because of a great opportunity, I feel like I can put part of the blame on myself for creating a sense of unneeded urgency for him and my team.
Reverting the harm takes time, but the first step is already done. I am now aware of what doesn’t work in the long term. Changing direction can only be done in small increments, so everyone has plenty of time to adjust.
The change starts with me.
Article by Răzvan Dragomir
Follow Razvan on Medium, where he and other Yonder tech professionals blog regularly, usually on very technical subjects.
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Read Razvan’s previous blog on toxic behavior.
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