The Myth of Multi-tasking as a Developer

Occasionally, as a member in a team or as a self-employed person you have to keep the stages of various projects in mind. More and more in our work life, the possibility to only concentrate on a single task becomes the exception rather than the rule. This raises the question of how to deal with this situation.

In this article we'll show you a brief selection of tools and techniques that help to keep you organized and on task.

Multi-Tasking

Multi-tasking means dealing with more than one issue simultaneously with mostly the same level of attention. The hope is that we achieve more in a shorter time-frame than we would normally do if we did not multi-task. But what does this look like in reality? Can we really do that, or is multi-tasking just a mere thought in which our busy environment makes us believe in, and which we just run after?

To be honest, in our entire life we are faced with this situation whether it relates to personal or work-related tasks. We are advised to prioritize the tasks based on necessity, significance, budget, or personal preference in order to complete them sequentially thereafter. The changing priority of tasks, and taking that into account, is a big challenge and can lead to radical reorganizations of our day.

If you look closer how vacancies are filled you will notice that key positions in a company, like project managers, secretaries, and nurses, are dominated by woman. This is based on the fact that the majority of woman have a higher ability for multi-tasking than men. They process tasks in parallel whereas men are more likely to use a linear scheme.

Men - and especially developers and engineers - get attached to something, dive into it to build a complex mental model and aim to produce a result that is as perfect as possible (perfectionism). They focus on just one thing: work on it, finish it, and then go to the next task. Furthermore, this inability to change tasks is likely to be found with the inability to finish tasks ("80% of a solution means the goal is achieved"), and a higher level of distraction by new things.

Switching between tasks is a critical moment in general, and costs a lot of energy and time - up to 30 minutes per switch - to rebuild the complex mental model mentioned above. This is time in which we are not as productive as we are normally, and the rate of mistakes increases drastically.

In contrast, woman have a different ability with regard to organisational skills. They are typically better at keeping track of several project stages and deadlines. Also, there are a lot of excellent female developers, too.

An Overview of Solutions for Developers

As technicians and developers, we are used to look for software solutions first to aid in these types of tasks. This is a good start but delivers only half of the solution. The other half deals with the way we organize our tasks and is sometimes much more important than the software we have in use.

In the following sections we'll present some tools, both software and non-software techniques, that will help you organize tasks adn stay on track with your projects.

Software Solutions

The following list of software is not an obligation but rather a recommendation. Choose carefully according to your actual needs.

Task organizer

Helps to split big tasks into subtasks and see the progress.

Tools: Trello, Wunderlist, or Getting Things Gnome (GTG)

Trello
Trello

Calendar

Helps to remember deadlines and other project dates.

Tools: Google Calendar, Kopano, GNOME Evolution

Kopano
Kopano

Project Planner

Manage team members and their assigned tasks, project and task durations.

Tools: Libreplan, vTiger, ProjectLibre

Communication Software

Chat and video conference.

Tools: Whatsapp, Skype, Jitsi, Slack, Mattermost, Wire, Signal, Telegram, Threema, Jabber

Slack
Slack

Time Registration

Keep track of the time that is needed per task.

Tools: A spreadsheet in Google Spreadsheets or LibreOffice Calc, Harvest, Timely, or Toggl

Notebooks

A place to write down ideas or notes.

Tools: Google Keep, Evernote, Simplenote, Zim

Non-technical Solutions for your Workflow

This includes delegating tasks as well as learning and using time management methods, such as the Pomodoro technique. Also, a collaboration with a personal assistant (PA) can be helpful for you as well.

Pomodoro
Pomodoro

A PA - historically known as a secretary - is someone who takes care of your calendar, your letters, your appointments, reminds you of your deadlines, and organizes your travels that includes booking your train tickets and accomodations. The requirements for a PA are discretion, patience, a high level of organization, and accuracy as well as the ability to communicate clearly and to be diplomatic.

In return, as a developer we have to learn to listen, to delegate tasks, and to give proper estimations how long it takes to finish a task. The ability to talk at all, and to communicate clearly with other developeres and management, helps to minimize misunderstandings.

Conclusion

Multi-tasking sounds like a good idea but does not work for all of us in the same way. It is energy-consuming and results in having to rethink much of the work you've already done. While the tools mentioned here are helpful, I'd recommend concentrating on finishing a single task first, and then continue with the next one. The combination of appropriate work methods with the proper tools results in better output quality.

Links and References

Acknowledgement

The author would like to thank Zoleka Hatitongwe for collaborating on the article and Axel Beckert for his critical remarks.

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Berlin -- Genève -- Cape Town Twitter Github
IT developer, trainer, and author. Coauthor of the Debian Package Management Book (http://www.dpmb.org/).