The Juggler’s approach to project management

Over the past few years multi-tasking has been revealed as a myth in the context of project management and productivity.  It may be possible to combine a physical task with a cognitive task (think chewing gum, walking down the street and talking on the phone) but as more cognitive tasks are added, multi-tasking becomes less feasible. Could you simultaneously develop a sampling framework, an inventory of data collection tools and an overview of analysis for three different projects?

You may choose to work on a sampling framework for project A, then B and then C, but that is switch-tasking, not multi-tasking. An advantage of switch-tasking is that you will always be prepared to say that you are moving forward with your responsibilities when you are asked for an update. Unfortunately, by switching attention and focus between different tasks there is an increased risk that a critical detail may be overlooked.

Juggling is fun to watch, a challenge to master and commonly used as a metaphor in project management. You might think jugglers are multi-taskers because they keep a group of objects moving in complex patterns, but take a closer look. How many of those objects (balls, bowling pins, flaming torches) do they hold? At any given time a juggler’s hand is only ever in contact with one object.  As soon as that object is thrown into the air, the juggler’s hand (and attention) moves to the next object.

Does that mean that jugglers are experts at switch-tasking? Consider what happens when someone taps the juggler on the shoulder and asks for help carrying equipment (or someone asks you take on a new project with a higher priority). The objects do not magically freeze and float in the air until the juggler returns. Instead, they are set aside and left until the next opportunity to pick them up. The momentum is lost and regaining that momentum requires more time and energy.

Instead, jugglers are masters of serial-tasking. They place their full attention and focus on the patterns they are creating (the task) to impress the audience. By focusing on their task and seeing it through to the end, the juggler is better prepared to maintain their momentum and quickly regain it if they “drop the ball”. Like the juggler, when your time is protected so that you can direct your full attention and focus on a task to its completion, you are better equipped to account for all the details and quickly deal with the dropped balls. Where multi-tasking is a myth, switch-tasking is an exercise in frustration as your attention gets redirected with changing priorities and emergencies.  It’s during the switching of tasks that details get overlooked and balls are dropped.  Serial-tasking guards against this by focusing on a task to its completion before switching to the next high priority task.

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