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Transitioning Projects

Or: searching for a state of Flow.

Wouldn’t it be cool to work on one project, or task, finish it completely, take a break and then move to another? Well, yeah, but it’s not very realistic.

Even if you’re focused on one larger project you’ve probably got numerous tasks within that one project that require you to regularly switch contexts. And don’t forget all the day to day distractions you’ve got to contend with.

Context switching is difficult. (And don’t get me started on “multi-tasking.”) The more often you have to do it, the less you’re going to get done. That’s a fact. :)

But it’s not just about productivity. What kind of hits to your stress level are you taking if you’re unable to focus? How much better would the quality of your work be if you weren’t having to jump around so much?

I’ve been reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and while it’s much deeper in its analysis of how we think, it’s got some really compelling evidence on how anxiety and stress effect how we think, AND how constant task switching and lack of focus effect our stress level.

There is a lot of convincing evidence out there that complicated tasks are done better, and faster, with deep, focused thought. You may think you’re able to watch TV and code a web application at the same time, and maybe you could literally do that. But it’s not a good idea as you’d do it faster, better, and likely with less overall anxiety, if you focused on that code.

But focus is hard to come by and we all have to switch between projects and tasks all the time, for a variety of reasons. I mean, it comes with the job—any job really. I don’t think many would argue that when you eliminate distraction and focus, you’ll get better work done faster.

So how can we make that transition easier? I’ll tell you a few of my ideas. In a second.

But first: a story.

This past week I found out that my primary project—a project I was leading—was being, effectively, shut down. I had been on it for several months and had devoted most of my time and energy towards it. In fact, I’d worked on little else during the work day. So a pretty big shift for me.

(And, in case you’re wondering, I was disappointed, but it comes with the territory, it wasn’t the first time and I totally understood why that decision was made. It could have been worse. Haha. Anyway, moving on.)

So, with that project ending, I had to move on to a new project. I got with my team and we sorted out a plan to move forward. There was a bit of role shuffling and I was placed onto a new project. One that was already in motion.

I was handed a bunch of documents to review and told I’d be participating in a meeting about the project the next day. I cleared some time and sat down to review the docs. Figured, sort of stupidly, that I’d just dive in and everything would be fine.

My mind just sort of blocked. And I was really stressed. There was the disappointment of having so much work go to naught, but when I really thought about it, the stress came more from anxiety around the massive switch. Could I get caught up in time? Would I be able to learn what I needed to to succeed on this new project? Etc. I tried to ignore these questions and plow through, but it didn’t really work well.

I was having a really hard time adjusting. I couldn’t really grasp what the project was about at first, and asking questions was just making me more confused. I kept turning back to the stuff I thought I’d be working on and had spent so much time on. I was also having a horrible time focusing. I just could think about the new project.

I realized I wasn’t going to be able to turn this one over quickly, so I stopped trying, which I was not keen on doing and took a bit of effort iteself , did some thinking and research and came up with a plan.

What follows are the action items I came up with, all of which sort of apply to any context/project switch, it’s just a matter of scale:

  • Find a smaller “bridge” project. For me this was doing the actual planning for how I was going to make this switch. The goal was to help me get in the proper mindset for a new project. Oh, and this here blog post. :)
  • Take care of small, easy tasks. This is one I tend to use quite a bit, even on smaller things. If I’m in-between focus times or changing from one smaller project to another I’ll tackle mundane tasks like lingering email, running errands, or, my favorite, cleaning. In this particular instance, I took care of some pretty major lingering tasks. I wanted to make sure I came in with a clear, undistracted mind-set.
  • Change your environment. This one is great for dealing with “fast” context switching. A good, simple example would be using Spaces on OSX to separate different functions of your job, but the same can be applied to larger projects. Work at your desk for one project and in the conference room for another. For a really big context switch you can think about rearranging your desktop, or adding a new plant, for example.
  • Take a break. Take a bit of time to yourself before jumping into something new. I took a long walk after I got “blocked” and that helped a lot. For small projects this can be a small amount of time, for larger, a few days would help a lot. (I could have used that!)

And a few that helped me specifically in this case with a more consuming switch:

  • Change your routine. Making a conscious effort to switch up my routine helped a whole lot. I have a lot of rituals and routines to help keep myself on track, focused, creative and productive. I has some that were specific to the previous project so I changed them. I switched my schedule around a bit, moved some standing meetings and made plans to start a few new daily rituals. Really helped put me in a good frame of mind for starting something new.
  • Clear your schedule. Context switching can be taxing in many ways. I find it’s always best to start something new with a clear, open mind and one thing that has helped me numerous times is to reduce the amount of “stuff” I have going on. This means, for me anyway, setting aside some extra time for work, as well as some time to reset.
  • Archive or hold old projects. I moved all my old files, research, to-dos, etc. into active folders and pretty much as out of view as possible. This brought some closure and provided a clean, symbolic break.

In thinking about it, many of this could probably do well to help anyone though any change, not just the changes we encounter in our work. For me many of these are tried and true, and some of the more extreme stuff seemed to work wonders for getting me back on track. I know I’ll try them again next time I’m off to a new project.

(Just a quick aside: I’ve worked on many product teams over the years and I think once of the primary reasons why a product’s quality goes down hill is related to lack of focus and constant context switching. I’ll talk about this in the future, but the gist is this: shifting back and forth between projects/features/etc., usually over long periods of time and with lengthy breaks, causes us to be in a constant state of having to re-learn something we’ve worked on, re-learn it quickly, make a overly quick decision (due to time constraint) and get back to what we were doing before. It’s hard to build a quality product that way.)

 
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