3 Tips for Maintaining the Illusion of Multi-Tasking

Last time I mentioned the need to exercise the part of your brain that does focused, careful work.

But let’s face it. Multi-tasking is a reality (even if a perceived reality) of every busy entrepreneur. So you might as well get good at it. Here are three tips:

1. Maintain context
We are more productive multi-tasking if we stay in context or as Csikszentmihalyi would say, maintaining flow. For example, return phone calls, take phone calls or make phone calls all around the same time. Even though you might go from calling a client to ringing up your mechanic, you stay in “phone mode” and thus gain efficiencies (like having a headset, being in a quiet environment, having the documents).

Obviously not all phone calls will arrive at a specific time, but you can maximize the chance of that happening by scheduling call times.

Other contexts include sorting through your email (applying the “can I do that in two minutes?” David Allen rule), doing paperwork, doing online research, or running errands.

You can multi-task better if you don’t switch contexts too often.

2. File away out-of-context items
Of course, life happens. You read an email and it may require you to make a phone call or spend hours researching in the library or act on it immediately.

Resist the temptation.

If no one is dying because of inaction on your part, there is a good chance you can get to it a half an hour later.

So note it in your to-do list or post a memo on your “things I gotta do today” page, and continue finishing what you have been doing in your context.

Of course, this assumes that you have a good task tracking management system right?

3. Install a great filing system
An easy tip that alone can make all the difference in your office is having a filing system. Do you know where to find stuff? Do you know where to put stuff?

The easiest test of your filing system is this: if an auditor walks into your office and asks you, “can you tell me so and so about this transaction?”, how do you respond?

Do yourself a favour and buy a nice filing cabinet with clearly labeled file folders from A – Z. Eventually you may want a separate drawer for your projects, your clients, and permanent files, but one drawer is often enough.

What kind of tips have you found works for you?

Chris Hsiung
U Venture

Does your Day-Timer align with your Business Goals?

Take a look at your calendar right now.

iCal on the iPad. Sorry, I couldn't resist.

What have you been doing for the last month? Is it the life you imagined yourself living? Are you doing what is needed to making progress? Do you know what progress looks like? Anything surprising?

Financial planners often suggest that the first step to money management is to become aware of where you are currently spending your money. It follows then that the first step to “time” management is becoming aware of how you spend your time.

Think of your Day-Timer as a fossil record of your life. It’s incomplete and it’s ancient history, but it can give you some indicators of how you have lived your life and how you could improve on it. Ask yourself some of these questions:

Have you scheduled items that you don’t respect? Sometimes we schedule things we should do like going to the gym, making cold calls, or taking time to read. This is an opportunity to ask why it is a should and either recommit to it or redesign how it’s scheduled. For the advanced schedulers out there, you may want to have an Intended Calendar (how you intended to spend the time) and an Actuals Calendar (how you actually spent your time).

Are there big gaps in your schedule and you feel like you have no spare time? If you are self-employed, time can seem to disappear without you knowing why. By noting what you are doing in those gaps, you gain the ability to reflect later on whether that was time well-spent.

Are you spending a surprisingly large amount of time on unimportant things? We’ve all done it before. We spend hours tweaking a website or shuffling papers when we really should be working doing the work we least want to do. Calling attention to your typical business time-wasters will help you stop doing it.

How much time are spending on the most important projects? On the flip side, how much time are you actually spending on the work that will make the biggest difference in the long-run? The projects that are on fire will always absorb our attention, but what about those projects that will be on fire? Or what about those skills, relationships, results that require a lit bit every day?

How much open space do you have in the week ahead? If the answer is “no space”, then you may want to ask yourself if that is sustainable. Without time for reflection, for spontaneity, or any other kind of unstructured play, you could be missing opportunities to innovate in the best case or running yourself to the ground in the worst case. Perhaps it’s time to make some difficult choices as to what activities should be chopped. Sometimes scheduling “you time” or “business time” is necessary. This doesn’t mean you should schedule every conceivable minute of your life. It just means you may have to set aside time for it.

Is your schedule mostly empty? If it is, either you are in the fortunate position of a Warren Buffet who has a singular focus and nothing else critical to worry about, or you are trying to keep everything in your head and letting little appointments and commitments slide. A simple test is to ask yourself whether you are forgetting little details or having that feeling that something needs doing, but you don’t know what. We shouldn’t be slaves to our calendars, but neither should we carry it all in a leaky memory. You don’t want to be “that person” who we can count on not counting on.

Does your calendar involve the most important people in your life? It may seem unromantic to schedule a date with your loved on, but compare that to not having any intentional, conscious, quality time with people you care about.

In the end, your schedule is a reflection of some (not all) of your priorities. It’s worth taking a look at how you’ve been spending your time and checking to see if they actually align with your life’s journey.

Are there are any funny or interesting patterns you see in your schedule? Please share!


P.S. – I was inspired by this video on your calendar as a “moral document”.

Easy Life = Easy Brain

Imagine a world where one did not have to walk because one could be transported magically to wherever one wishes instantaneously. Food is custom ordered and delivered on the spot, and technology allows us to do amazing things with a simple verbal command. Is this the perfect world envisioned by Star Trek with teleporters and replicators? Or is it the pessimistic outlook of WALL-E where people have evolved into fast-food dependent, “always-on” internet connected, pear-shaped blobs?

From the movie WALL*E
From the movie WALL*E

We understand that when it comes to muscles, you use it or lose it. In a world where good food costs more than junk food and technology has rendered much physical labour unnecessary, it’s no surprise that obesity is on the rise in Canada and the US.

But what about the damage to our thinking? It’s not just that junk food has been shown to reduce brain capacity and attention in kids. It’s that in a world where one does not have to do much, one also doesn’t have to think much. When life is easy, what need is there to think?

One of the features of modern civilization is the ever escalating level of convenience in everyday life. I was stunned to see at the grocery store that one could purchase carton of pre-whipped eggs. Convenience is not inherently bad. However, it can add another layer of abstraction where eggs come not from chickens, but from a carton. For a city kid like me, I already have enough dissociations from the realities of food (beef comes from supermarkets right?) that I can imagine a future generation of kids thinking that egg comes freshly squeezed out of a box!

Consequently, we also expect thinking to come out of a box too. Adult learning theory, some of which is good in principle, ends up being applied as “how to do we make learning as easy and painless as possible” such that classes are filled with simple and fun activities that engage and entertain but fail to educate. Thinking becomes divorced from the bloody and visceral realities of life.

Another example is in how we relate to our technology. In Shop Class as Soul Craft, Matthew Crawford laments the disappearance of the dipstick in some models of motorcycles. All the rider sees is a light that flickers on indicating a need to take it into the shop. The user becomes disconnected from the functional need of the oil and hence from how it works.

One could argue that having these conveniences free us to think about and do other things. I’d agree. I’m glad I don’t have to entirely understand my car. But what happens when we also don’t have to understand where our food comes from or where we get our comforts of civilization or how our financial markets works? I worry that when we delegate all critical areas of our lives to experts, we delegate away any sense of responsibility for what is real.

When life is smooth and easy and frictionless, we end up making up drama about little unimportant things. It’s not being able to find parking in a mall or being slighted by a friend’s comment that gets us up in arms. Like the child who doesn’t know how to get his own way, the adult who has not had any real responsibility will throw a tantrum at the slightest disturbance in the flow of the easy life.

Do we do enough then to strengthen our thinking muscle? Are we engaged with things that matter to life? That we care deeply about? That frustrates us and therefore pushes us to be and do better? Do we examine how we spend our time and our money? Or how about how we engage in our relationships with others and with the world?

To you now, how do you keep your thinking fitness up?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
U Venture

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

Does “being present” lead to evil?

Here is something that makes the Holocaust possible:

“Another factor that reduces self-control and fosters the crossing of moral boundaries is a certain kind of mental state. This state is marked by a very concrete narrow, rigid way of thinking, with the focus on the here and now, on the details of what one is doing. It is the state that characterizes someone who is fully absorbed in working with tools or playing a video game. One does not pause to reflect on broader implications or grand principles or events far removed in time (past or future).”

Unmasking Administrative Evil by Guy B. Adams and Danny L. Balfour

What does it really mean to be “present” and “in the moment”? When is it helpful? When isn’t it?

Chris Hsiung BSc. CPCC
HUMAN Venture Coaching

Chris Hsiung is the president of U Venture, a consulting practice that helps entrepreneurs and professionals develop their adaptive learning capacities to navigate uncertain times and build meaningful life ventures. He graduated with distinction from the University of Calgary in Electrical Engineering and is an internationally certified coach through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI). He is also a student and teacher of curriculum at Leadership Calgary and at Momentum.

The Strategic Wedding

My fiancee and I practicing with the focus mitts.
My fiancee and I practicing with the focus mitts.

As I sit here planning my own wedding (mere weeks away), I am struck by how planning a wedding is like planning a military campaign. Asides from the possible metaphor of love and war, the planning process between the two share many conceptual similarities. Both involve tactical, operational and strategic framing. Both require you to think about why you are doing this in the first place. And both require well developed capacities to succeed.

One of the tremendously helpful constructs from military strategy is looking at a given campaign from different frames of action, a concept developed more fully by the Action Studies Institute. By looking at a wedding from different frames of action (tactical, operational, strategic, foundational, transcendent) I can more effectively make it happen because quite frankly, the human brain is not capable of holding simultaneously all the details around hosting a 200 person party. It allows me to zoom out, look at the big picture, and then zoom back in to make sense of the bits and pieces.

What are these frames? Allow me to explain with some direct examples.

Most people who have planned events start with the day in mind and then work backwards thinking of all the tasks (tactical level) required to make it happen. Small tasks like getting boutineers and ordering bouquets can be grouped into higher level tasks – ordering flowers. These larger tasks could then become a full fledged operation that could be assigned to a person – the flower “captain” – who would take on the responsibility of ordering, delivering, and setting it up according to the specifications of the mission parameters such as colour scheme or the bride’s preferences.

The coordination and interlinking of the various operations (flower person, food person, decoration person) become a part of the strategic frame. You think about higher level objectives. What will be the look and feel of the wedding? How will these various operations be funded and supported? For instance, do I need to train someone on how to run my laptop? Good higher level objectives provide guidance for all operations.

As important as supporting and directing the operations is attempting to anticipate critical problems both external and internal to the “team”. While it’s always possible that vendors may fail to follow through (what? no food for guests?), the stress on family members may be such that they will not be able to address the issue. The strategic frame is not just about anticipating every possible problem, but developing the capacity to handle unanticipated problems. When you pair an open bar with a party, well, you simply have to accept that unexpected things will arise!

Thinking at the strategic level does not come naturally. As human beings, we are far more inclined to focus on the immediate needs and tasks. Our inclination is to get tactical. We are far less inclined to step back and work on the bigger picture. In business, we focus on execution. In addressing complex social issues, we jump to action. Rarely do we step back and ask whether what we are doing is helpful.

Frames of Action Map by Action Studies Institute
Frames of Action Map by Action Studies Institute

Even more difficult than thinking at the strategic level is thinking at the foundational level. This is the level of asking what this mission is for in the first place. Much like a couple asking themselves why they’re getting married in the first place, the discussion could be explosive because it challenges fundamental assumptions – why do you love me again? And yet, it is such a critical question because all the planning and strategizing means little if the foundation has not been well-formed. We could return to the occupation of Iraq by the US and see that not only was their strategy flawed (shock and awe for a “quick” war), but the reasons and purpose for the mission was based on a false premise (no WMDs or proven links to Al-Qaeda).

Why don’t we spend the time to test our foundational frame? Part of the reason is that we don’t want to face the fact that our cherished values and beliefs might be misguided, distorted, or plain wrong. Who wants that? The other reason is also a weak understanding of what humanity and life is all about (the transcendent frame). Without an understanding of the human story, our understanding of ourselves and others are likely to be limited. If life is in fact all about looking good and achieving status, then marriage will serve one sort of purpose. If life is a process of becoming a better human being, then marriage would serve another broader purpose. The study of life and wisdom is a life-long journey as repeatedly preached to us by the sages of the world.

Each of these frames interact with each other in interesting and dynamic ways. Each requires its own sets of capacities and ways of thinking. War or love, business or life… all can benefit from developing strong frames. Granted, a military campaign differs from wedding planning in that there are higher levels of uncertainty with opponents who are generally invested in killing you. On the other hand getting together a big multicultural family together for the first time has it’s own adaptive challenges!

I know that in a few more days, my conscious mind will be consumed by the operational details of making the wedding happen, but I hope that both my fiancee and I will be able to remember what this is all about and why we’re on this life journey together in the midst of the biggest party we’ll probably ever have. The wedding may go nothing like we expect, but our life will continue to flourish regardless.