Don't Multitask. Get Better at Task Switching.
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We have been told that multitasking is good for work productivity, but we intuitively know constant multitasking makes us stressed out. This is because the word 'multitasking' itself contradicts what we do. After all, we do not multitask. Computers do; humans don’t. We task switch.
The word “multitasking” implies that you can do two or more things at once. But our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time, and we must switch back and forth. The human brain is unable to switch 'contexts' when switching tasks. This affects performance and increases stress.
Task switching is not anything new. But task switching with many sources of information is a new challenge. The constant streams of information from emails, chats, phone calls, documents impose new burdens on memory. Recalling details while switching from one topic to another, requires mental aerobics. How do you task switch without losing your train of thought?
Productivity Tools Make It Harder to Task Switch
Under the moniker ‘workplace chat’, a new genre of software has heralded a new chapter in productivity tools that are supposed to increase employee productivity and make work fun! If it were only true.
These tools started with the goal of replacing email with chat for workplace communication. Judging by their growth, this was successful. Then they got ambitious and started integrating many disparate apps with their systems. They wanted to provide a one-stop-shop for accessing all work information in one place. Ironically, these well-intentioned tools created unintended consequences. Instead of simplifying work, they created an information overload stressing the user and affecting productivity. Without proper reference or context, the user was forced to task switch mentally to make sense of all the information dumped on them.
Another type of tool started with the ambitious goal of bringing all commonly used web apps under one roof with a single login. Still, each app works alone, in its own space. Sure, switching apps is easy. But each app creates its own island of information. There is no link between them supporting a single narrative. The user must keep connections, if any, in memory, even as they switch between apps working on the same topic.
An App to Thread Information and Make Task Switching Natural
What if there was an app that harnesses the power of many communication media in today's workplace to enhance productivity? It avoids an undue burden on the user’s memory. It preserves the context of the 'task' or 'topic.' It places all relevant communication for the topic in threads. Threads unburden the user from preserving the context with procedural methods.
Imagine a customer service representative servicing many clients. The conversation may start with incoming emails or phone calls from customers. The representative may then need the help of other people in her team to respond to each customer. Internal communications may be carried out using a chat system. All communications with each customer form a topic. Switching topics is stressful for the representative. She must remember all the communications she had with each customer using emails, chats, and phone calls. She must also tie them with the communications she had with her internal team. To ease the situation, she may open many windows on her screen—one for chat, the other for email, and so on. You can see how this can get out of hand. Yet this is quite a common occurrence.
Now imagine an app that supports email, chats, and phone calls. As each customer contacts a representative, a new topic thread is started. That topic thread connects all later communications with that customer. The representative can easily switch customers by clicking on a different topic thread. Scanning the thread shows the ‘big picture’ of the situation. Her response is prompt and appropriate. This increases customer satisfaction.
Switching topics now becomes a breeze. All this without changing the way the representative works.
The Missing Key - Context
Even though we believe we multitask, we really don’t. We task switch. Unfortunately, apps that were supposed to have made our life easier and work fun actually come in the way. Instead of helping us task switch easily, they increase the burden on our memory and stress us out. What these apps are missing is ‘context.’ They don’t let the user preserve context as they task switch. Context is the glue that brings it all together and makes task switching natural and productive.
While automation makes it extremely easy to preserve context across tasks, we can also do it procedurally. You can create folders of each topic you want to track and save all the related communications (emails, chats, shared documents…) as files – PDF, Image… in those folders. While cumbersome, it does somewhat reduce pressure on keeping track of all of this in your memory.