The Multitasking Paradox

February 26, 2013

by Alexander Sennhauser

Distractions are ubiquitous. Research efforts show that performance of information workers which are constantly interrupted drops dramatically. For example, it takes software engineers up to 15 minutes to get back to their programming task after an interruption has occurred. The same is certainly true for every creative activity of today’s information workers (HBR has an amazing animation on the topic). However, creating a distraction free environment for people to excel in is a constant challenge for companies around the globe.

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Our company Squirro is no different. A small yet highly productive team is dedicated to creating a new category of context intelligence. Working in such an environment requires every employee to have a “getting things done” mentality. Or as music artists like to put it: It is “do or die” time. Every team member has to ask himself how she can strike the fine balance between working efficiently as an individual and as a member of a specialized group. It is obvious that interruptions are part of a daily work life in a team.

Over the years I had the opportunity to work at many different companies and in different cultures. Learning from this experience I want to share a few of my personal insights on how to avoid the multitasking paradox and be more effective as a member of any team. That is right, any team. As soon as you realize that you are part of a team you can think about how to complement your teammates and how your actions impact the overall team performance. The pressing question becomes how can you maximize your own contributions. In my experience any individual needs to get comfortable with the situation of performing a task alone. In a sense you need to learn how you can get from loneliness to solitude, in which you can enjoy the accomplishment of a task. As part of my daily routine I often wear head phones at work to listen to repetitive music, discard any incoming requests by email or instant messaging, or simply work at night when my family is already in bed and my colleagues are far away. As an additional benefit solitude provides me with the necessary time to prepare for any group activity such as weekly review and planning meetings, status calls or software design discussions.

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To sum it up I argue that information workers are like athletes: You need talent, paired with the right technique and tools, complemented with a lot of hard work. The first thing is something you usually do not control. Some people are better at writing computer software than at writing the manual for the end-user. Others have a hunch for creating visual representations of abstract concepts found in environments with big data. Of course you can always try harder. But there are limits to that approach. Which basically leaves tools, technique, sweat and tears for you to control. What I would like to share with you is how the Squirro platform provides me with an invaluable tool to avoid the multitasking paradox and be more productive to increase the overall team performance.

At Squirro I am mainly responsible for the design, implementation and operation of the back-end infrastructure. Basically, all the things that work in the background and allow you to track any topic of interest. Moreover, I am involved in many other activities ranging from customer support to interactions with potential project partners to helping out the marketing department to spread the word about Squirro. To touch on my points above I want to be prepared for all of these activities. But as you can imagine this is a lot of ground to cover. There are dozens of tools, libraries, external APIs, etc. that we use on the engineering side. It would be a pity to miss an upcoming release of one of the tools. Even worse, it would be disastrous to miss out on an external service which is discontinued for whatever reason. Moving on it requires a lot of effort to get to know a customer or potential partner by searching the web and social network sites. But the most time consuming things of it all is to do this information gathering over and over again.

All the Squirro platform requires me to do is to set up a topic of interest once. All future updates are delivered to me on any device I use. For really important events I use content triggers to stay ahead of the game. And the daily email digest delivers a fresh piece of news to my inbox every day. This is how Squirro helps me stay organized and my team excel at creating a new category of context intelligence.