An Easy Way to Boost Productivity

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picjumbo.com_IMG_3642 (1)Sometimes we don’t realize how much we overload our brains. We wonder why we can’t accomplish everything we planned in a given period of time. Then we chastise ourselves for our lack of self-discipline and focus.

Stop being so hard on yourself! There’s a reason this happens.

Let’s try two simple tasks to illustrate what I’m talking about. (The tasks, the explanations, and the recommendations are from Jeff Sutherland’s book, Scrum.) For each, you’ll be writing down the numbers 1-10, the Roman numbers 1-10 (I, II, III, IV, etc.), and the letters A-L. At the end of each task, they’ll be lined up as follows:

1                      I                      A

2                      II                     B

3                      III                    C

To get started, you’ll need a piece of paper and a pen or pencil.

Task #1

  1. Time yourself to see how many seconds it takes you to complete this task.
  2. Write down the numbers 1-10, the Roman numerals 1-10 (I, II, III, etc.), and the letters A-L going across. For example, going from left to right, you’ll write

1                      I                       A

Then directly underneath

2                      II                     B

and so on, up to 10, X, and L.

Task #2

  1. Time yourself to see how many seconds it takes you to complete this task.
  2. Write down the numbers 1-10, the Roman numerals 1-10 (I, II, III, etc.), and the letters A-L by one at a time, by type, in columns. For example, first all the number

1

2

3 . . .

10

Then slightly to the right, all the Roman numerals. Finally, slightly to the right, all of the letters.

  1. Which task took longer? By how many seconds?

It takes most people more time to complete Task #1 than Task #2, often twice the amount of time.

Why? There’s a cost to switching between two or more complex tasks. It’s a more complex version of writing 1, then I, and then A. With more complicated tasks, like writing reports, preparing presentations, and so on, you’re often constructing a “mental architecture” that then collapses when you’re interrupted in any way. When you return to that same project, it can take hours to get back into the frame of mind you need to continue.

Computer software researchers analyzed how much time people lose as they take on two or more simultaneous projects. Take a look:

# of Simultaneous Projects % of Time Available per Project Loss to Context Switching
1 100% 0%
2 40% 20%
3 20% 40%
4 10% 60%
5 5% 75%

What’s the solution?

When you’re working on a complex task or project, block off chunks of uninterrupted time each day to work on that specific project. During the time you’ve allotted, work only on this task. Don’t switch back and forth between this and other tasks. You should notice a difference in productivity fairly quickly.

Keep this in mind for learning, too. Picture trying to learn concepts and skills associated with two or more subjects or having to work on two or more homework projects at the same time. It’s highly challenging and mentally exhausting. Make sure you study and work on one project at a time.

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