Present, but not correct

As organisations have steadily embraced more remote working and more technologies to support their business, many workers are feeling more pressure than ever to be seen to be present and busy.  There is an increasing culture of expectation that employees will respond to emails outside of their working hours or will complete tasks in their own time, and a negative perception of anyone unwilling to take on additional work.  This is fostered even from before individuals are employed, through job adverts that emphasise the need for applicants to be able to “multi task”.

Multi-tasking was seen as a great advance in the way that people used computers when they started appearing on office desks across the world.  These shiny and normally quite expensive devices would suddenly allow people to work on two things at once, with the computer being able to handle both tasks at the same time.  Except it didn’t.  What actually happened was that the computer split its time between the two tasks, and focused on each one briefly, moving from one to other very quickly and giving the illusion of handling both at the same time.

The effect was amazing – especially when the computer was able to handle both tasks faster than the person operating it, so there was never an obvious delay or switch between tasks.  Unfortunately, what works well for modern electronics doesn’t translate so well to humans.  When we multi-task, we can’t literally work on two projects at the same time, we will naturally adopt the same strategy as the computer and assign periods of time to each project in turn.  This needs us to take on quite a bit of extra cognitive work to be able to remember how far we have got with each task and be able to work out what needs to be done next.  The more complex the task(s), the more effort and time will be needed for us to switch between them.

Add to this the burden of reporting progress on each task to our managers or clients, of taking the time to organise ourselves for each task every time we work on it, and progress becomes slower and often more stressful.  The quality of the work produced may also decline – although we will appear to be doing more, we will actually be doing it less well.

As we take on more tasks, progress will become slower and will require more time than is budgeted for in the normal working day.  This might lead to working longer hours during the week, or even continuing with work at the weekend and will likely influence our decisions on if or when to take time away from work.  In turn this will lead to negative impacts on our mental health and on our family life if it is sustained over a long period of time.

One of the more recent desirable attributes for job applicants is to be “agile” – not in the sense of being able to move with feline grace but being able to focus on tasks and get them done.  Agility is about being able to focus on what is most important and assigning the necessary resources to be able to achieve it to a high standard in the shortest possible time.

Being “agile” and “multi-tasking” are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but an agile worker will be more discerning about the amount of time allocated to individual tasks and will work through them in sequence.  In most cases, this will result individual tasks being completed more quickly, and with greater benefit to the business.

Being able to manage time effectively will often need you to be able to say “no” to new work until your current workload has been dealt with.  By focusing on your existing tasks, you will be able to complete more of them, clearing any backlog and allowing you to deal with new work more effectively.  Effective time management will also recognise the negative effects that a tired and stressed workforce will have and will include opportunities to take breaks and spend time away from work. 

Being known for regularly responding to emails or working on tasks late at night or during holidays or weekends shouldn’t be seen as a badge of honour, but as an opportunity to review the way that you work and consider adopting a more agile approach.

The course catalogue on the Development Zone includes a range of activities that are designed to help you manage your time more effectively, or in the words of Allen F. Morgenstern some ninety years ago, “Work smarter… not harder”.

About the author

After gaining a degree in Computer Science, Tim spent nine years teaching in a number of secondary schools (11-19 year olds) in Wales.  For the majority of his time teaching, Tim led a highly successful team of teachers delivering vocational ICT qualifications and reached the level of Associate Assistant Headteacher before leaving teaching.  He has also been a senior examiner and moderator for one of the UK's largest awarding bodies.  Since 2013 he has been the senior developer for the Development Zone.

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