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The Lone Wolf and the Flip Flopper

Background

In this document, we discuss the damage caused by "multitasking" and why working alone in backlog items may not be very efficient.


The Inefficiency Caused by the Lone Wolf

When teams try to improve productivity by assigning each member a single Product Backlog Item (PBI) to work on individually, they are more likely to inadvertently create bottlenecks elsewhere.


Team members often prefer to work independently to avoid interfering with each other’s tasks.


However, this is indicative of a dysfunctional team with inefficient processes and practices. If everyone is working individually, they are unlikely to have time to help and to learn from each other.


One possible solution is to apply swarming.


Swarming is a collaborative approach where team members work together to complete an item. Agile teams, fundamentally, are collaborative, and so the practice of swarming is a sign of a high-functioning agile team.


Swarming unlocks the creative brain power of a team. Brainstorming and discussion are integral to working through Sprint Backlog Items.


Many teams plan swarms at the beginning of a Sprint but, other times, swarms happen organically.


A simple “recipe” for swarming:

  • Part of the team swarms on the topmost priority Sprint Backlog Item.

  • Part of the team swarms on the second priority Sprint Backlog Item.

Maximum of two items at a time.


You will have to experiment and gather data on how well it works for your team.

It is often easier to start with pairs of team members. It is important to keep in mind that swarming is a way to work but it is not the only way of working.


Swarming is for any type of team: Scrum, Kanban, Traditional.


The Damage Caused by Context Switching

Multitasking is task switching in disguise.


When you try to do two things at once, like checking your email during a meeting, you’re jumping between those two tasks. Task switching takes mental effort, meaning you’re likely to make more errors and get less done.


Some of the effects of multitasking are:

  • Reduced attention span and concentration

  • Increased errors and mistakes

  • Lowered creativity and innovation

  • Higher stress levels and burnout


It would be to do two things at once, but studies show the human brain simply can’t pay full attention to more than one thing. Our brain has evolved to single-task, or only think about one thing at a time.


If you stray from focusing on one task, it leads to cognitive dissonance and stress as it goes against evolutionary neural processing.


When we think we’re multitasking, we’re switching between two tasks quickly. Any time you switch between two tasks there is a switch cost. You make more errors and almost always take longer to complete two tasks simultaneously.


If you feel like you’re capable of multitasking, a study found that our perceived ability to multitask had little correlation to whether we were multitasking effectively. We think we’re good at juggling multiple tasks, even if that isn’t the case.


From a high-level context, memory forms work, short-term, and long-term neural processing.

When you focus on one task, all three aspects of memory are engaged to bring up your experience, education, and knowledge to address the task.


When you introduce a new task, you abandon your current memory, and you start the entire process again with the new task.


Research showed that even these brief mental blocks that happen as a because of context switching cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. Because it takes mental effort to switch between cognitive tasks, multitasking affects your ability to get work done efficiently and effectively. When context switching, 20% of cognitive capacity is lost.


Multitasking causes a stress reactive response, further degrading cognitive processing.

This coupled with the memory dysregulation leads to greater task deficiency, error, and slowness. As frustration with task performance increases, stress increases further, causing a vicious cycle.


A study by Stanford University found that switching between multiple tasks can lead to higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Stress can lead to physical problems such as headaches and muscle tension.


Jerry Weinberg in his book Quality Software Management (1992) mentions how multitasking delays getting things done.




A 2005 study by researchers at The University of California, Irvine, shown that it takes, on average, 25 minutes, and 26 seconds to fully return to your work after an interruption.


Developers switch tasks 13 times/hour and only spend 6 minutes on a task before switching to the next and interruptions from coworkers are the costliest offender.


You are still thinking about your previous task after you switch to the new task. That is known as attention residue.


To summarize it: multitasking makes you stupid as well as slow, while increasing stress and accelerating aging!


How do we minimize context switching?

There are five techniques that can help you be productive without context switching:

  • Timeboxing.

  • Pomodoro Technique.

  • Eisenhower Matrix.

  • Do not disturb features.

  • Time Blocks.

Timeboxing

Timeboxing ensures you’re finished with your work before switching to a new task.

Research from UC Berkeley’s Becoming Superhuman Lab. team members who engage in a “Focus Sprint”, (a period where they do not monitor messaging apps or their inbox) report being 43% more productive.


Do Not Disturb

Use do not disturb on your computer and mobile devices to allow yourself to get in the flow.


Pomodoro Technique


A pomodoro is a 25-minute work session, after which there’s a five-minute break. After doing four Pomodoro, you take a longer 20- or 30-minute break. By working in short spurts, you’re more likely to be productive while staying motivated.


Time Blocks


Like timeboxing, but instead of assigning each task a timebox, you group similar tasks together and complete them all in a time block.


The Eisenhower Matrix



  • Urgent and Important tasks/projects to be completed immediately.

  • Not Urgent and Important tasks/projects to be scheduled on your calendar.

  • Urgent and Unimportant tasks/projects to be delegated to someone else.

  • Not Urgent and Unimportant tasks/projects to be dropped.


Urgent matters are those that require immediate action. These are the visible issues that pop up and demand your attention now.


Often, urgent matters come with clear consequences for not completing these tasks. Urgent tasks are unavoidable, but spending too much time putting out fires can produce a great deal of stress and could result in burnout.


Important matters, on the other hand, are those that contribute to long-term goals. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention.


These items require planning and thoughtful action. When you focus on important matters you manage your time, energy, and attention rather than mindlessly spending these resources. What is important is subjective and dependent on goals.


References

Gopher, D., Armony, L. & Greenspan, Y. (2000). Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229.


Mayr, U. & Kliegl, R. (2000). Task-set switching and long-term memory retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 1124-1140.


Meuter, R. F. I. & Allport, A. (1999). Bilingual language switching in naming: Asymmetrical costs of language selection. Journal of Memory and Language, 40(1), 25-40.


Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.


Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997b). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 2. Accounts of psychological refractory-period phenomena. Psychological Review, 104, 749-791.


Monsell, S., Azuma, R., Eimer, M., Le Pelley, M., & Strafford, S. (1998, July). Does a prepared task switch require an extra (control) process between stimulus onset and response selection? Poster presented at the 18th International Symposium on Attention and Performance, Windsor Great Park, United Kingdom.


Madore, K. & Wagner, A. (2019). Multicosts of multitasking. Cerebrum, 04-19. National Library of Medicine.


Bellur, S., Nowak, K., & Hull, K. (2015). Make it our time: In class multitaskers have lower academic performance. Comput Hum Behavarior, 53, 63-70. doi:10.1016


Monsell, S., Yeung, N., & Azuma, R. (2000). Reconfiguration of task-set: Is it easier to switch to the weaker task? Psychological Research, 63, 250-264.


Monsell, S. & Driver, J., Eds. (2000). Control of cognitive processes: Attention and Performance XVIII. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Rogers, R. & Monsell, S. (1995). The costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207-231.


Rubinstein, J., Evans, J. & Meyer, D. E. (1994). Task switching in patients with prefrontal cortex damage. Poster presented at the meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, San Francisco, CA, March, 1994. Abstract published in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 1994, Vol. 6.


Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.


Yeung, N. & Monsell, S. (2003). Switching between tasks of unequal familiarity: The role of stimulus-attribute and response-set selection. Journal of Experimental Psychology-Human Perception and Performance, 29(2): 455-469.


Jeong, S-H. & Hwang, Y. (2016). Media multitasking effects on cognitive vs. attitudinal outcomes: A meta-analysis. Human Communication Res, 42(4), 599-618. doi:10.1111/hcre.12089


Rowley D., Lange M. (2007). Forming to Performing: The Evolution of an Agile Team. Agile 2007, Washington, D.C., 2007.


Weinberg, J. (1992). Quality Software Management. Dorset House.

Yousef S. (2021). The Science of Productivity and Performance, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.


Cirillo, F. (2016) "Get Started". The Pomodoro Technique. Retrieved 6 January 2016.


Enz, Cathy A.; Thompson, Gary (June 2013). "The Options Matrix Tool (OMT): A Strategic Decision-making Tool to Evaluate Decision Alternatives". ecommons.cornell.edu.

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