You Might Have Many Customers or a Manager Who Wants You To Do Many Things

Last week I was invited to publish an equity crowdfunded Monotasking article for Chinese startup GitBook. Funders got exclusive pre-reading and then an invitation to a live chat with the author (me). Below is a transcript of the live chat.

Staffan Nöteberg: 让生活和工作都更高效的单核工作法

作者/分享人:Chat 实录

Is Monotasking superior to Pomodoro technique and other time management techniques? What are its advantages over other techniques?

Monotasking is different than other time management techniques. Here are three examples:

  1. Monotasking makes it easier for us to focus on what to do right now. Research shows that it’s stressful, energy consuming, and disturbing to have a great many open tasks. By cutting down on our potential tasks to do, it’s easier to focus on the current task.
  2. Since the Short List is not time bound—like a plan for today or this week—it better reflects the priorities we have right now. Our priorities are ever changing and our plan must visualize that.
  3. Monotasking is easier to get started with than most other time management techniques and it doesn’t require the same amount of process work. It’s the same support, but less demanding.

大胖(《番茄工作法图解》译者):Some keyword translation: Monotasking 单核工作法; Short List 快捷清单; Grass Catcher List 集草器清单。

According to your article, does it mean we need to have two lists? One long list including all tasks we need to finish, and a Short List with 5 top priority tasks to be finished today? Can you give some examples of Short Lists?

First, I want to say that the Short List isn’t a plan for today. It’s the maximum five most important tasks right now. We don’t know if they’ll be completed today or if they will require more time. Tasks may also be added and removed during the day, as long as we don’t break the rule of maximum five.

The question about two lists is very relevant. Where should I put new ideas which doesn’t qualify for the Short List right now?

The Monotasking book (but not the GitChat article) describes the practice of a Grass Catcher List. It’s where you put new ideas—big and small—that you might want to do in the future. This list is not prioritized and it’s not limited. Once a week you review the Grass Catcher List. This is called Weeding. You drop all tasks except maximum five. These five become your new Grass Catcher List.

Some ideas need time to be re-assessed. They might seem terrific when we discover them, but after a week we’re pretty sure they’ll never reach our Short List anyway. Then it’s good that we have the recurring Weeding event to get them off our backlog.

About the item’s on the list: They should be small and actionable. A rough estimate say 10 minutes to 2 hours. Bigger tasks than that need to be broken down in smaller tasks. For example: write synopsis for new article, contact potential customer, write business letter. For a software developer: fix a bug.

I heard that your new book Monotasking has been inspired by your trip to China. What did you find in China has inspired you to create such a book? And can we say that Monotasking is especially designed for Chinese people?

It was a great trip to China in October 2015. For one month, I toured big cities, explaining time management techniques. During this trip, I visited offices and met many clever persons. They told me about their everyday problems of focusing and prioritizing. It surely inspired me to take the time to write the Monotasking book. And I’m happy that this book will be published in Chinese before any other language.

However, in my experience, office workers and students around the world struggle with the same type of prioritizing and focusing problems. So, I hope Monotasking will help many people in different countries.

Do you have some suggestions on customizing Monotasking to different people’s special circumstances? Are there any successful cases?

All people are unique and we also have our unique context. No process fits everybody like a hand in a glove. My advice, though, is to start with Monotasking as it is described in the book. After some weeks you know best if you want to tweak it. Don’t be afraid to make small experiments and then evaluate after two weeks if you want to standardize the new way of working.

Monotasking seems to work in many ways. But what if you are required to multitask by your boss, clients, etc.? Does monotasking a little bit oversimplify the real-world challenges?

You might have many customers or a manager that want you to do many things. However, it’s not possible for our brain to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. It’s our duty then to prioritize what’s most important right now and start with that one.

However, we shouldn’t focus for too long on a task. At least once an hour, we must ask ourselves: “What’s the best use of my time right now?”

So, even if you create more than one result. You can’t create them simultaneously. Our brains are constrained.

大胖:So you may process multi-task during the day. but only one mono-task in 25-55 minutes. it’s not about say “no” to everything, is about say “yes” to something – one top thing.

So,you mean we should have a rest every one hour?

Not necessary. We can choose between 1) to continue with the current task, 2) to change to another task, or 3) take a break (rest). The moment of choosing is called Panorama.

Do you have suggestions on how to alert oneself about the one hour cycle, we often get lost when things keep us busy.

When I work with my computer, I have a notification every half hour (9.00, 9.30, 10.00, 10.30 etc.) It’s a crontab job showing an alert that says “Panorama Cue.” Then I look at my tasks and prioritize.

I agree that it’s easy to forget to set an alarm and also to take a break. Without break, the velocity goes down.

大胖:Mr. Staffan uses Linux. 🙂 And for me, I set a series of iPhone alerts: 8:30-9:00-9:30-10:00…. on workday morning i will switch on them all. then dive into my first task.

Well, do you mean that we should work like a mono-core CPU, using some kind of algorithm to work on only one task at a time so as to create an ILLUSION of multitasking to the rest of the world?

Not a round-robin algorithm. 1) Chose the most important and set the alarm to next half hour. 2) When the clock rings, you ask yourself which one is most important now. Priorities might have changed.

I think a major problem with prioritizing is that there are too many candidate tasks that you won’t do anyway. If you can make a good decision to remove these tasks (and tell it to the stakeholders) then it’s quite easy to prioritize just using intuition.

Do you have suggestions for the alert on the move?

Then I would do the same thing with my smartphone. I tiny and short signal, that you notice.

Do you have suggestions for small and big interruptions? The interruptions may appear now and then, and you need to pause and talk to other people to decide the magnitude of it.

There are two techniques described in the Monotasking book: Volunteer Hour and Casual Visitor. They are too long to write here. But I found that they are useful to managers and project leaders who often get interrupted, since they have much information to share.

I want to use my smartphone to set an alarm when Monotasking, but what if other information keeps coming in and I don’t want to mute it in case of emergency?

While Monotasking, you should try to mute almost all computer and smartphone notifications (also visual). You can check them with pull, instead of others pushing them on you. How many times a day do I need to check my email? Remove auto download and make schedule for when to check it.

Then there’s message types that are both infrequent and important. We must arrange our tools so that these messages notify us immediately.

And to put notifications on mute seems ok to developers, but some jobs may require quick response. Many managers respond to emails, phones, texts very quickly, and bosses like that.

True. And then we need to arrange our IT tools so that notifications that are important and infrequent catches our attention.

大胖:Maybe you can negotiate your Volunteer Hours with your colleague and clients. For me i am touchable at 10:00-12:00 every work day.

And, do you have any tools to recommend which could sync tasks between different devices? Or just paper pen?

For the Short List, pen and paper most often is enough—it’s about what you do right now.

For the Grass Catcher List, something simple online. A text document you can access from computer and phone might be enough.

So you always take a pen and a piece of paper with you?

Since the Short List is for what’s most important right now, I only need the pen and paper when I sit at my desk and work. Ideas I discover at other places first goes into my Grass Catcher List.

How long will it take for you to arrange the short-list per day?

The Short List is continues. In the morning it’s almost the same as when I left the office yesterday. Then I add and remove tasks during the day.

Remove if it’s completed or some new task that is more important came up. Add if I discover something small, actionable that is one of the five most important right now.

What if you’ve finished 3 tasks, and you want to add new items and the paper’s full? Copy the unfinished two to a new piece?

Yes. All tasks on the current Short List should be visible at the same time. So, on the same page.

I used to use moleskin notebook, which is expensive. It would be good if you could recommend something practical.

Moleskine are nice but their beauty doesn’t really add any value to the practice of a Short List. Any piece of paper is sufficient.

What should I do if I cannot focus on my task during the Monotasking session?

Best: Take a walk!

If it doesn’t help, 70s author Alan Lakein suggests the Swiss cheese method. Pick a small subtask of your current task and invest a small chunk of time in it. It doesn’t have to be the most important subtask. These small tasks are like the holes in a Swiss cheese. With enough holes, the cheese will either disappear (the whole task is completed) or else you’ll get the knowledge necessary to make the task interesting.

But taking walks removes blockers and it oxygenates our brains. We get new ideas of how to solve things.

Build-Measure-Learn is also a great technique. Do something small that you can show to others and get feedback. It can be as little as a mind map.

It is mentioned “Even though it is easy to start with, it relies on scientific research.” What kind of scientific research?

There are more than 200 references in the Monotasking book. Many of these are to academic papers. Some are neuroscience, some psychology. The book is easy to read, even though it uses stories from scientific experiments. The story about Paris, Eyfel and landmarks for example comes from a scientific experiment.

How to keep focus on the tasks when the TDL are full of 5 long-term tasks? usually I cannot tell which to be done first and most of time I am thinking about which to do first. Finally, many even most are unfinished ones. This makes me embarrassed.

The Short List have small and actionable tasks, roughly estimated to 10 minutes to 2 hours. Long term goals should be on the Grass Catcher List. Try to break out subtasks from these long term goals and put them on the Short List.

If it’s hard to chose, it probably doesn’t even matter. They have the same importance. However, we must be transparent with our priorities. Showing them to all stakeholders. We’ll only be embarrassed if we hide the prioritization we’ve done.

Are there any way to teach how to cut long-term goals to short ones?

Yes there are. One way is to focus on feedback. What can I do to get feedback early?

Getting early feedback helps us to solve the right problem, to understand what the stakeholder really need.

So, instead of splitting in phase 1, phase 2, phase 23 etc. upfront, I do something that give me feedback, and then I pull a new subtask. Every new little piece of knowledge makes it easier to do the best split.

Well, I have tried to read more than 2 books at the same time just as do tasks. cut them to short-term tasks. everyday read for about 10-30 minutes per book. but after a month, I will feel that all the books are read but not understand clearer rather than read a book for even 2 months. But what the problem is that focus on a book for a long time is also a hard nut to crack.

I describe a method in the book called ‘Selective Reading’. It’s about reading top-down, instead of serial. Serial: read pages in order 1,2,3,4,5 etc. Top-down: First, read the table of contents carefully. Continue by reading the summaries of the three most interesting chapters. etc.

There are techniques called speed reading. They helps us read faster. But, as you say, we don’t understand faster.


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