Sunday, December 14, 2014

Multitasking: Three Steps, Three Tools and Three Tips

A very important skill PhD students should pick up in graduate school is "multitasking". I don't believe that human beings can naturally do two brain-consuming tasks at the same time. Reading newspaper during breakfast is not counted as multitasking. In this post, I'm using multitasking to refer to doing multiple tasks over a planning horizon, such as a day, a week, or even a month or longer.

Three steps

1. Scoping

First we have to understand the scope of work and and how much time it will takes to finish each task. Initially, the student may rely on the advisor to point out the scope of work. Through writing weekly reports, the student will learn to estimate the time needed to complete a task. Before graduation, the student should be able to independently conduct a research project.

2. Prioritization

Among many tasks that need to be done, some are more important and/or urgent than others. Note that importance and urgency are two different concepts. For instance, reading books is a very important task, but may not be urgent - it doesn't take a day to read a book anyway. Preparing for final exams at the end of a semester can be quite urgent, but may not be important. We should always prioritize those things that are both important and urgent, and try to minimize the time spent on those things that are neither important not urgent.

3. Scheduling

Once the priority is being established, we need to schedule the tasks to meet the learning objectives and research goals subject to the realworld constrains. The constrains can be paper due dates, family needs and health conditions. Typically, the student should schedule those important but not urgent tasks as regular activities. For instance, schedule one hour reading time every day to read books, three hours per week for workout sessions, and so forth.

Three tools

1. Calendar

I use calendar mainly to send and receive meeting invitations. If someone come to my office without a meeting scheduled on my calendar, I have a legitimate reason to defer the conversation to a time slot I'm comfortable with. I also use calendar is a reminder, especially for those tasks that don't take much time and are due a few weeks or later. A student doesn't usually have as many meetings as mine, but calendar can still be useful to mark course schedule, regular meetings and some tasks with further due dates,

2. Evernote

Believe it or not, most of my blogs are first drafted in Evernote. Of course I also use Evernote for many other things, such as writing papers, documenting research ideas, conducting editorial work, and so forth. Since Evernote is synced on all of my computers and mobile devices, I can do these tasks with few location constraints. For instance, I drafted this blog post when I was in an airplane.

3. Todoist

My first experience with Todoist was not pleasant. I put dozens of tasks on it and scheduled them over the next few weeks. Gradually I realized that I was spending a lot of time making and revising plans rather than getting things done. Then I gave it up. Somehow I picked up the tool again. This time I used a different strategy:

  • Only put top priority items on Todoist. 
  • Cap the list at 7 items. 
  • Schedule no more than 7 days ahead. 
  • Create three categories based on estimated time for completing a task, 15 min, 30 min and 1 hr. 
  • Make a daily recurrent task "plan for tomorrow" in the 15 min category.

Now most of the time, my Todoist has 3 to 5 items. Each of them is one hour or less. All of them are having high priority. And I check off "plan for tomorrow" every night before falling asleep. In other words, I don't have to spend more than 15 minutes a day to manage this to-do list.

Three tips

1. Learn to say no

Saying no is not as easy as it sounds. However, we have to prioritize the tasks to fit our schedule. I don't say yes all the time to all the requests. Sometimes, I turn down paper review requests. Sometimes, I walk away from seemingly promising opportunities.

2. Utilize small time slots

We all have 24 hours in a day. A big chunk of a few hours would be awesome for a focused research session. However, given many other distractions, we may not have those high quality time slots everyday. How to utilize those small pieces of time becomes critical to productivity. Making those tasks less than an hour long is one way to fit those small pieces of time. Using Evernote is another way to utilize the small time slots here and there.

3. Take breaks

Sitting in front of a computer for consecutive hours is not good to health nor productivity. Taking breaks between hours helps refresh the mind. Taking frequent breaks is also one of the reasons I make each task less than an hour long.

Overall, multitasking is more of an art than science. I'm sure different people have different formulas. Hopefully my formula can be helpful to some of you. 

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