Number 5 will shock you! It’s easy, but SUPER non-intuitive!

Updated 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):

  1. 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.
  2. Be careful not to do more than the task 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”).
  3. 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); shutdown every other program that you don’t need (like your email applications) and FOCUS on what you scheduled you would be doing. It won’t be easy, but you’ll find that things like emails do not (and should not) be able to interrupt your day.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. Take a walk, some exercise, or just stare at a wall.

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.

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