Matt Obee pro­vides tips for stay­ing pro­duc­tive when con­text switch­ing

net magazine - - CONTENTS - Matt Obee is a UX/UI de­signer and soft­ware tester at Hol­i­day Ex­tras. He spe­cialises in us­abil­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity.

I split my time be­tween UX/UI de­sign and soft­ware test­ing, which means that I’m con­stantly switch­ing my fo­cus be­tween dif­fer­ent projects, teams, tools and skills. Con­text switch­ing like this can be a real prob­lem be­cause it takes time to stop think­ing about the pre­vi­ous task and get fully en­gaged in the next. Re­search shows that we lose up to 40 per­cent of our pro­duc­tiv­ity if we mul­ti­task be­cause we make more mis­takes and take longer to get things done. For­tu­nately, there are some sim­ple tech­niques that we can use to man­age our time and at­ten­tion more ef­fi­ciently, which we will share with you here.

Set a sched­ule

In­stead of al­ways try­ing to re­lent­lessly mul­ti­task, re­serve blocks of time to con­cen­trate on spe­cific tasks – an hour to write that blog, four to fin­ish those wire­frames and so on. I’m a fan of the

Po­modoro Tech­nique, which breaks the day into 25-minute chunks, each fol­lowed by a five-minute break. Af­ter com­plet­ing four of these ‘po­modoros’, you take a longer 15-20 minute break. Twenty-five min­utes is gen­er­ally enough time for me to make progress on a task and the fiveminute break is just short enough not to in­ter­rupt my flow. You might pre­fer longer blocks of work­ing time and fewer breaks, so ex­per­i­ment with the pos­si­bil­i­ties and find a rhythm that works for you.

Batch your tasks

Save up all those small jobs and com­plete re­lated tasks in one go. Ex­am­ples in­clude writ­ing feed­back for col­leagues, check­ing RSS feeds, so­cial me­dia and email. In­stead of check­ing and re­ply­ing to email ev­ery few min­utes, cast an eye over it in your next Po­modoro break. If it’s not re­lated to your cur­rent task, sim­ply come back to it later. You might also like to batch all of your emails or phone calls into a sin­gle ses­sion when you have a quiet pe­riod and you don’t have to think about any­thing else. This is sim­i­lar to ‘con­text lists’ in the Getting Things Done (GTD) sys­tem.

Min­imise browser tabs

Limit the num­ber of tabs that you have open in your browser and keep only the stuff that you need in or­der to com­plete your cur­rent task. Ar­ti­cles to read, tools to try, cat videos to watch – there’s no way that you can process that much in­for­ma­tion si­mul­ta­ne­ously and you’re kid­ding your­self if you think you’ll re­mem­ber to come back to it later.

I add any­thing that I need to get done to Todoist and send ar­ti­cles that I want to read later to Pocket. If you need help with self dis­ci­pline, try in­stalling one of the browser extensions that close tabs for you. Start with a fresh browser ses­sion when switch­ing con­texts.

Clear your desk

Tidy desk, tidy mind. Be strict in clear­ing your workspace at the end of the day or when switch­ing be­tween tasks. As is the case with browser tabs, those notes and sketches from the pre­vi­ous task are just a dis­trac­tion that makes it hard to con­cen­trate on the next piece of work. It’s eas­ier to keep things tidy if you re­mem­ber to batch your tasks and min­imise the num­ber of times you have to switch con­text.


I pre­fer com­pletely dif­fer­ent work­ing en­vi­ron­ments for dif­fer­ent tasks. If I’m solv­ing a dif­fi­cult prob­lem or play­ing with de­sign ideas, I tend to work at home where I can con­trol the level of noise . When I’m work­ing through a list of small test­ing tasks, the noise and en­ergy of a busy of­fice can be just what I need. What’s more, the change of scenery and the phys­i­cal act of mov­ing be­tween lo­ca­tions is an ef­fec­tive way to clear the mind and re­set when switch­ing con­texts. If you don’t have a choice of lo­ca­tions, try go­ing out for a short walk in­stead.

Make de­tailed notes

Never un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of writ­ing things down. I like to think my mem­ory is gen­er­ally pretty good but I cer­tainly strug­gle to re­mem­ber things when switch­ing con­texts. Hav­ing notes re­moves the pres­sure of try­ing to re­mem­ber and makes it eas­ier to shift con­cen­tra­tion from one task to the next. I like to have my notes in the cloud in­stead of on pa­per, so I’ve ex­per­i­mented with var­i­ous tools like Ever­note and OneNote. What­ever tool you de­cide to use, re­mem­ber to keep your notes up to date.

Find a place to stop

I try to com­plete each task be­fore switch­ing my at­ten­tion to some­thing else, oth­er­wise I find my­self cov­er­ing the same ground again when I come back to it later. If you know that some­thing is likely to take longer to fin­ish than the time you have avail­able, con­sider wait­ing un­til you have a longer, un­in­ter­rupted block of time. If this isn’t pos­si­ble and you can’t com­pletely fin­ish a piece of work, look for a nat­u­ral place to pause.

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