How many projects can your brain effectively handle at once?
Yep. And we can extract three essential brain hacks from new research that will help us to become more productive. These include:
· Attention Residue and how to focus fast
· Cognitive Setup and how to reduce ramp up time
· Cognitive Tunneling and how to avoid stress blindness
The above-mentioned research tracked over 9,000 employees at a global manufacturing firm across multiple years. The net-net is they found a bell curve relationship between multi-project work and productivity. So, too few projects prevents you from optimal productivity, yet too many projects diminishes productivity too and can cause mental exhaustion.
What to do? Stick to five projects. Period. Plan your time and timelines to complete some projects before piling on more. Get clear on which projects you can ditch, delegate, defer.
Increase Your Output, Reduce Your Stress
Multi-Project Work is the norm in today’s workplace, just as matrixed and/or cross-functional teams are too. Recent reports show that 80% of employees engage in MPW (Mortensen & Gardner, and note the citing is from 2017!).
We often have dependencies and contingencies on projects too, so while we’re waiting on someone else’s deliverable, we task-switch to another project. This is where we need to manage attention residue. This happens when we ‘carry forward’ thoughts from the prior project into the next one.
Brain Hack # 1: Attention Residue. Capture your thoughts/insights before temporarily closing out of a project by using whatever note taking software you like. Think of this as mental Post It notes so you can easily dive back into open issues, questions, concerns without missing a beat.
Another side effect of MPW is cognitive setup. This is when it takes us a while to clear our head and ‘drop in’ to the next project in our queue, regardless of whether we have attention residue or not. Think of this as a switching cost.
Brain Hack #2: Cognitive Setup. Make the task as repeatable and familiar as possible to reduce the switching cost of cognitive setup. This means ideally working with the same team members, so you know their work style, having SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) so your deliverables are of consistent quality and completion, having tracking/project management software so all know each team member’s status and all are delivering their work on time.
Now what gets us all messed up is of course priorities—check out our infographic on this topic here. The culprit often is another brain hack: cognitive tunneling. This is when our brain narrows focus due to excessive stress, often blinding us to important factors and leading to our missing crucial data in the periphery.
Brain Hack #3: Cognitive Tunneling. Expanding your view is essential for this brain hack. The priorities infographic linked above will teach you a quick technique for zooming out to see the big picture of a project, its purpose, its key players, and more, then zooming in to ensure all aspects are being addressed. We’ve all had the experience where in retrospect we’ve said “I can’t believe I missed that!”. This is a perfect example of the power of cognitive tunneling. Don’t let it blind you.
Since we know there’s a Goldilocks-type of dilemma when it comes to workload (this is too little, this is too much), to get it “just right” focus on five projects, maximum.
Use your 3 brain hacks above and let me know how it goes!