Parallel task execution is a matter of perception.

I often get asked how to do many things simultaneously, how to be in multiple conversations at once and (almost) never miss something.

The first reply that pops into my mind to that question is: you can’t.

You can't humanly do two tasks simultaneously. If you can, I envy you and I’d love to know your secret! 

What you're usually doing is actually switching between multiple tasks, and depending on how fast you can do that, you can give the illusion of parallel execution.

Think of it this way. When you watch a juggler, you see them handle many objects at the same time. 

Are they really, though?

Here's a fun video on how to learn to juggle three balls. If you look closely at the learning process and the movements, you might realize that a juggler’s hands are only ever taking care of one ball at a time. They just switch between them very fast!

How do you know if you’re context switching properly?

So, since we can't do multiple things simultaneously, we need to learn to switch from one task to another, quick enough to push forward more than one "at the same" time.

As the example of the juggler shows, we can't start immediately with three (or more) objects. We start with one, and we skill-up over time with patience and exercise.

The question is: while we learn, how do we know if we're doing it right?

And what does "doing it right” mean? 

It’s difficult to give a good description of  what "good context switching" looks like ⁠— the ideal flow might be different from person to person. 

Personally, I tend to approach it by identifying clues that something's not exactly right, indications that I'm struggling in doing my job.

Let's take a typical one-week time frame to keep track of my work. I will ask myself:

  • At the end of the week, do I get tired, drained?
  • Have I done many things, but still have a feeling of underachievement?
  • Do I lose track of conversations I'm having? 
  • Do people have to remind me to complete something or reply to a message?

If you replied positively to one or more of these questions, it could be a sign that your workflow has space for improvement. 

Of course, not all of this might be related to context switching. Feelings of underachievement might be a sign of a lack of short term goals and good position fixing (literally: checking your position often enough to know if you're going in the right direction). I’ll talk more about position fixing later on in this post, and how, when done right, it’s the perfect complement to context switching.

What can we do to build a healthy context switching process?

When deciding when and how best to context switch, you need to weigh a number of factors: 

  • Do you have enough context to jump in on the new task? If not, how long would it take to gather that context?
  • How quickly do you think you can help solve the unexpected problem in front of you (once you have the context)?
  • Is this not only a high value task, but a high priority one? (They’re not always the same thing.)
  • How many people are already working on it? Are you actually providing any additional value? 
  • How significant is the ripple effect of the (new) task? (Is this a small task that will have a big impact? Vice versa? Somewhere in between?)

Reviewing these factors helps me apply a process of instant-prioritization, navigating through multiple problems and choosing which one to give attention to in a few minutes.

Here are some key rules to follow as you practice context switching.

Make use of instant-prioritization

Let's take a typical example.

 You’re "in the zone" coding or thinking about a complex problem, and here it comes, the unexpected slack message, something's going on, you’ve been mentioned in a conversation, you’re being asked questions. The thread’s already several messages long, and you have to go back to the beginning and catch up while it’s all unfolding.

That's when instant-prioritization can kick in.

Go for context first: Read the first few messages only and try to get a hang of what’s going on. The moment you read it all and try to dive in, you're not instant-prioritizing ⁠— you're already working on it!

If you couldn’t gather enough context from those first messages, ask a follow-up question of whomever started the thread ⁠— starting a private message with them instead of crowding the group message can be helpful. Ask them some clarifying questions to check whether you’re on the right course.

Now that you have the context, you can understand if you can be helpful (or just a silent follower) and, if so, weigh how urgent it is and how much time it will require from you.

When I find myself in situations like this, I often realize I'm not needed; maybe I've been mentioned just to be kept in the loop. Or perhaps I have some information I can add, and I'll give that single piece of information without trying to dive in.

Sometimes, though, you need to get more involved. 

Think about whether you want to do it immediately, disrupting your line of thought, or if you can defer to later.

That's the time to consider if, and how, the task is blocking someone else: will waiting mean they’ll have to stop what they’re doing (or have to context-switch themselves)?

This brings us to the ripple effect. 

On one side of the spectrum, a conversation that requires me to reply with information quickly, unlocking an entire project for another team, feels like a good reason to stop what I'm doing and try to help.

On the other side of the spectrum, what’s needed of me might be a time-consuming investigation into a very specific problem that isn’t blocking the whole team. 

There are many scenarios in the middle ⁠— there’s no catch-all playbook. You need to weigh all the factors at play, using your good judgment to make a conscious choice.

Make a conscious choice when you switch context

It's common to feel that you need to help everyone on every topic, anytime, and it's a good sign you care about collaborating with your team or your company to achieve a shared, bigger goal!

But it’s not healthy for yourself, the team, and the company if your attention is spread so thin that you give wrong, or partial information because you didn't dedicate the right amount of time to someone.

When you jump on something else, you should do it because you chose to be elsewhere; you decided to interrupt your current task, and you know the reason why you made that call.

I love this sailing example: you're in the middle of the ocean, on a trip from Spain to the Canary Islands, and along the way you have a pleasant encounter with a sea turtle (on their way to their natal beach to lay eggs, or simply chilling). You want to see her a bit closer or a bit more (without disturbing her, mind!) so you might choose to change your route a little bit, or slow down.

Then you realize the sea turtle is going on a completely different route: are you going to follow for a whole day? Probably not. After a few minutes, you'll set your sails back on course to your destination.

You chose to do a "small" switch for a benefit but then reconsidered when it grew so big it would  disrupt your goals.

What if, instead, you're sailing in a fleet.

You receive a call for help from another boat and realize you're the only one near enough to give support and achieve something important for your team and whole fleet. You turn around and go to the aid of the other boat.

You'll get to the Canary Islands later, most likely, but you know exactly why ⁠— you made a conscious, well-informed choice to do what was best for you and your team.

The sunset as seen from a boat off of the Canary Islands.

Fun fact: The story about sailing to the Canary Islands is actually true. Here's some photo evidence. 😀

Remember that telling others that you can't do something is doing something

I believe a piece of simple communication advice tends to be underestimated: telling someone "I can't right now" is an action in and of itself. If you’ve reviewed a situation and can't interrupt your work to jump on something else, it's ok and useful to express that.

The person receiving that information can put it to good use, for instance, by looking for a temporary workaround or planning around it.

Follow the way of the Jedi (seriously)

"Don't center on your anxieties, Obi-Wan. Keep your concentration here and now, where it belongs."

Star Wars - Episode I  - The Phantom Menace

As Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn used to say to Obi-Wan, stay in the moment, stay in the context, and focus your best on it.

Have you ever tried to follow a conversation in a meeting thinking about how to solve a bug that's haunting you, and then had a question asked of you during the same meeting, which you had to ask to have repeated while you struggled to regain context?

All good signs your concentration is not in the here and now!

Remember that the bug will still be there after your meeting. What you're doing is vital because you chose to be there, so be there. 

Or question if you should be there at all.

Hone your position fixing skills

Position fixing is material for a whole other post, but it also plays a role in understanding when you're unconsciously switching too much for the wrong reasons. Here are some questions to use to check in with yourself:

Did you establish goals at the start of your week? 

How often do you look at them?

If you only calibrate at the end of the week, you'll realize too late if you shifted your focus from something important to something (maybe) important without a deliberate call.

In other words, by Friday you might realize you followed that turtle for two days, and it was a fantastic experience, but you lost your entire fleet!

Keep in mind that high priority/ high value tasks don't always have to be the first thing you take care of

It might seem counterintuitive (I hear protesting already!) but let me share my rationale here.

Priority, impact, and value can be affected by bias. We naturally tend to give more importance to our tasks if we don't exercise the muscle of looking at the bigger picture.

Going back to the many factors you want to consider when performing instant-prioritization, your perceived impact is only one of them.

One heavyweight factor: how much that task is a blocker for someone else, and what is their perceived impact? What is the shared impact? 

Unblocking someone else’s tasks with my action enables parallelization. If you have a small/ medium task that is unblocking someone else’s work, even if the short-term benefit for you is low, you're probably solving something that has an immense value for them. 

Find (and stretch) your limit over time

This brings us back to  the juggler starting with one, then two, and only later with three objects: start with few tasks simultaneously. 

Look back, assess, increase, find your limit, and you’ll soon enough find your sweet spot. Then you’ll be able to identify when you’re really stretched and it’s time to get things off your table.

The signs of good context switching

Setting up the right flow is complex, and requires time, attention, and exercise. It's a muscle to train. 

If you’re willing to try one or more of these pieces of advice, you might feel like forcing yourself. Don’t try all of them at once. Incrementally identify the most impactful actions that work for you and your environment.

After a while you should notice that you’re focused during the meeting, you easily prioritize your projects, and you find it easier (and faster) to decide on the spot if it’s important to dive into a conversation or not.

More than anything, a great sign is when you start feeling like you did so many things at the end of the week, you can’t believe it, and your team will have achieved so much more around you.

Interested in working with a team that's just as interested in how you work as what you're working on? Check out our open positions and apply.

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