The Gorilla Wigwam- Single Tasking in a multi-threaded world

I was buried in the depths of a presentation. Elbow deep in the slide formats I was completely engrossed and entirely focused. I didn’t even have my email running, I’d put my work phone on “do not disturb” and turned the ringer off on my cell phone. I used to think I could multi-task and that I was good at it. Going agile had proved to me just how delusional I had been. So now a days I focused. Whether it was working with the scrum team or working on something not part of our agile project, I still gave it total focus. One task at a time, no more no less.

Now if only the desk would stop shaking, it was starting to get… “Whoa!”  I reached out just in time to catch my cell phone before it vibrated off the desk. As I put it back on the desk I saw a string of text messages on the notification screen.

And my heart dropped… The texts were from my wife. I was supposed to pick up the kids from camp. I was supposed to leave for an early lunch, pick them up and drop them off at home. It was 1:00 PM.

I bolted from my office and sprinted for the elevator. Careening into the elevator I nearly bounced off Hogarth. My gorilla was learning against the wall and gave me a jovial smile as he said, “What floor?”

“Hogarth, it’s a two story building!”

Nodding, he pressed the button and leaned back. “You know.”

“Oh, boy”. I thought. “here comes the lesson.”

“That reminds me of a joke”

I blinked, but Hogarth just continued on.

“Doc, you gotta help me. I’m having an identity crisis. I keep having these alternating, recurring dreams. First I’m a teepee, then I’m a wigwam, then I’m a teepee again. Am I going crazy?” Hogarth leaned back letting his voice take on a mock Freudian tone. “It ees very seemple, you are two tents.”

I glared at Hogarth, hoping my eyes would suddenly develop heat vision and I could make him disappear in a flash of light. “Other than being a terrible joke, is there a point to it?”

Hogarth nodded, “Yes, yes there is. Single tasking is fine, you just have to remember that your inputs come from many places. How are you going to make that all work?”

Wow, he asked me a straight forward question. I don’t think he’s ever asked me a straight forward…

Hey! That’s a hard question.


How to Single Task in a multi-threaded world

I’m a list man. I have to be. I know that if I don’t write it down, then it never happened. If my wife didn’t have one of the best memories I’ve ever known, I’d probably have forgotten something really important by now (eating, sleeping, you know important stuff).  I’ve learned to be successful by making sure to always have something I can capture my To Dos on. It used to be a pocket notebook and a pencil. Today it’s my trusty iPhone and the free Kanban style product Trello (works best in the Chrome browser).

With Trello I not only have the ability to quickly access my task board, I can have multiple task boards. This is great! I have a Home task board that my wife has access to. She can add “Honey Dos” to the list anytime. And she’s not distracted by the Work task board that has all the things I need to do for my day job. And I keep my own personal task board separate from all that. This allows me to prioritize “fix the screen door” against “clean out the closet” without getting distracted by “Create Wiki milestone schedule for the program team.”

So now I’m a lot better. I never “forget” anything, it all goes on a list and I have that list where ever I go. I have my work board, my home board, my personal /professional board and I even have boards for my Hogarth Book (in process) and I make ones for special events (I had an SFAgile2012 board for everything I wanted to follow up on after the conference).

The problem is not getting things done when they need to be done. I’m at work and looking at my work task board all day. Then I get home and remember I was supposed to call the electrician so the stove could get fixed. Whoops! I had it on my Home Task Board, I just never looked at it during the day. I was so focused on my project called “work” that the project called “home” suffered.

Multi-Tasking Myth, Multi-Tasking Reality

I don’t think anyone that reads this blog is going to argue that multi-tasking is a good thing. The evidence stacking up against multi-tasking grows every single day. Anyone who has spent any time in the Lean/Agile community has probably played one of the many multi-tasking games. The ones that show just how hard it is to do multiple things at one.

For those that haven’t, try this really quick exercise.  Get yourself a sheet of blank paper and a pen. Bring up Set the time for 20 seconds. Now see how many numbers, starting with 1, you can write in 20 seconds. Repeat this with the Alphabet. Okay good job. Now comes the fun part. Set the timer for 20 seconds again and do both numbers and letters at the same time (1A2B3C4D, etc). See how much you can get done and compare it to doing numbers and letters by themselves.

So now that we are all on the same page an in agreement (Even if you’re not, just smile and nod, we don’t make the gorilla angry, do we?), lets toss a little cold water of reality on things.

Yes, we all agree multi-tasking is bad. We want focus on a single task until it is done and we also want all the tasks we do to be part of the same project. That’s what we want. I don’t know about the rest of you, I’m getting used to not getting what I want. Let us just look at a normal “work day.” The average work day is somewhere between six and ten hours long (I said average, work with me here). Then the average sleep period is six to eight hours. You’re left with, on average, another eight hours. So right here your day is divided into three projects, work, sleep and “everything else.” Even these can’t always be contagious. Maybe during lunch today I need to run out and register my son for a Lego Stop Motion film making camp. So already I’m bouncing between projects just by waking up and going through this thing we call life.

Even if my day job has only one project and I can focus on one task at a time, I still have to juggle work against the rest of the twenty four hours in the day and all the other responsibilities and priorities I have.

Augh!!!!! You’re not helping!

Okay, sorry. I can see this is making your blood pressure go up just thinking about it all. I can tell you my blood pressure was suffering for a while there. Trello meant I didn’t lose anything I had to do. Unfortunately it meant I just kept getting a bigger and bigger list of things I forgot to do because I was busy doing something else.

My solution may seem a little odd. Trust me, it works. I made another board. There is real value in keeping my work task separate from my home tasks. The problem is there is only one of me and I have to do it all. So I made a board called “Weekly Kanban.”

“Iteration Planning”: At the start of every week, I go through the backlog on all my active boards (Work, Home, Personal, and any short term boards). If it is something that needs to get done this week, I move it to the Weekly board. Everything has an estimate of effort (Fibonacci number scale) After I have all the stuff that has to be done I look at the backlogs and move over any thing else I think I can get done in the week. I take from the top of each backlog when I do this. When I’m done with me week planning, I have a single backlog of rank ordered items. I can end up with “Create the Phase Gate slide deck, Go to the Dentist, write my blog, write the weekly status report.”

“Daily Grooming”: Everyday I look at the rank ordered list and tweak it based on the day.  Obviously home things tend to be done on home hours and work done on work however. Still it gives me flexibility. I know I’m more creative in the morning, so I might write my blog then and work on making the power point slides and status report in the evening.

“Work In Progress Limits”: I control my work in progress as well. This is a little softer than you might see in strict Kanban. I only ever work on one single task at a time. However, I might have up to four items in my Doing column. This is because some things are “in process” or “waiting for outside.” For example, this week I had “File expense report” in the doing column for three days. My boss was out of the office and I wasn’t going to put it into Done until my boss had signed the report. Normally I try not to let my WIP grow to more than one active and three pending tasks. If I have four tasks in doing, I do my damndest to clear one of those out before going t o a new task.

That’s how I single task in a multi-task world. Each “project” has its own backlog. At the start of each iteration I make a unified iteration backlog. Everyday I groom the rank order based on priority and time of day. And finally, I limit my WIP to only one active item at a time. Finally, at the end of every week, I archive the Done board. That way I can see what I’ve accomplished over time. Really important when it comes to review time (and yes, you can have review time at home too).


And yes, I schedule time to read blogs. Some folks write really long blogs and you need to schedule the time. 🙂


2 thoughts on “The Gorilla Wigwam- Single Tasking in a multi-threaded world

  1. Pingback: New PM Articles for the Week of June 18 – 24 | The Practicing IT Project Manager

  2. Pingback: Gorillas don’t procrastinate, people do | The Gorilla Coach

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