These will shock you! They’re easy to do, but SUPER non-intuitive!

Updated January 26, 2022 and September 5, 2019 with additional supporting information.

While it’s true that the evidence against multi-tasking is overwhelming, it is an unfortunate truth that most workers today, and definitely most Scrum Development Teams, work on several different things every workday, switching between tasks many times each day, and losing more and more time doing it.

According to an article written for Inc. magazine, distractions cost the US economy about $997 billion a year (yep, that’s nearly a TRILLION dollars)! According to another article written for The Telegraph, employees waste 759 hours a year by being distracted! That’s equivalent to 5 months of lost productivity!

Yet another study has shown that even a 3-second interruption can result in twice as many work errors and a 5-second interruption triples the error rate.

Here are five steps you can take as a manager or ScrumMaster to help your Development Teams get better at focusing (in other words, NOT multi-tasking):

Reduce the Size of the Product Backlog Items

This reduces complexity which allows the Development Team to work together and reduces the amount of work in process. Lower work in process means fewer interruptions. Some other resources you can find on Artisan Agility include:

Don’t do More Than the Work Actually Requires

When it comes to building a product – writing code, updating documentation — sometimes we write code to make it easier to read, sometimes we write and rewrite documentation to make it better. A good DONEness definition and clear standards (coding, documentation/style, naming, data, testing) can not only help the team do what is necessary to create results that are production ready, but can also help the team to not do MORE than necessary (often called “gold-plating”). Other resources you can find on Artisan Agility include:

Compartmentalize Your Day

Most workers need to check email and make phone calls. In the name of flexibility, however, a lot of people leave their email opened on their desktop and check it every time an email arrives. This creates interruptions throughout the entire day. Instead, try this: at the beginning of the day, schedule a couple times during the day where you plan to check emails and then plan the rest of your work in 90-120 minutes blocks (around already scheduled meetings, of course).

Here’s a day from my calendar last April:

My work days mostly begin the same way with exercise and reading. Notice, however, that the rest of the day is made up of timeblocks between 60 and 90 minutes along and with short breaks in between. In addition, checking email is allocated to dedicated (and short) timeblocks of its own.

Highest Priority Tasks First

As long as you are planning your day (see the previous step), make sure that the things you do first are of the highest priority. When you get the most stressful things done first, you’ll find the rest of the day is easier to manage.

Reduce Your Work in Process to ONE

When you have real problems to solve, when innovative solutions are absolutely required, you are relying on an area in your brain called the pre-frontal cortex, the area of your brain that takes previously unrelated ideas and joins them together to create new ideas and solutions. However, the pre-frontal cortex can only work on one thing at a time. That means that any other activity can easily interrupt pre-frontal cortex activity – talking, reading, and writing.

Consider the work of psychologist Gerald Weinberg who concluded that each extra “context” you switch between wastes 20%-80% of your total productivity.

  • Focusing on one task at a time (whether its for an hour or a day) makes 100% of your time productive.
  • Switching between two tasks reduces your productive time to 80% (20% is lost to switching)
  • Switching between three tasks reduces your productive time to 60% (40% is lost to switching)

Affect of Context Switching on Productive Time

Focus is an important value in the Scrum framework. By taking steps to improve the focus of your developers, you can go a long way toward improving the productivity of your team and the happiness of the team members. Other resources available on Artisan Agility include:

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