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I wanted a job. During the interview I was asked a common question: How well do you handle being switched to a different task in the middle of a day? Things move pretty fast around here. Of course, I said "I can handle that!"

But I knew that while I can handle it, inevitably my productivity is degraded. I found an article called The Myth of Multi-tasking which reinforced this idea and (while not pressing any advice) gave me a helpful insight: Don't jump at every email.

  1. Try to not even look at the email, Instant Messenger, task queue or voice mail any more than I must.
  2. When I do receive a potential distraction, consider its true importance and urgency. Schedule it for another day, if possible.

But that doesn't resolve the problem. I find it is built into my local culture of work. I'd prefer to work on one project a day -- maybe a second, because a break can be helpful. But sure enough, there are days when I am prompted to visit three or even four.

How can I avoid become more efficient at changing projects, given the fact it seems to be unavoidable in my corporate environment? It is costly, but are there any tips on how to make it cost a bit less?

Meta comment: I'm interested in this beta SO site, but am often stumped how to present a question that will return a concrete answer. I think this post is the sort that collects subjective and scattered advice. Your feedback welcome, or point me to a good Meta post (I looked but did not find one).

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I think the meat of this question is looking for strategies or methodologies for managing changing tasks during the work day. I think it's a good question at its core. – Raystafarian Apr 17 '14 at 13:11
up vote 3 down vote accepted

If your projects are such that you don't finish them before starting another, and thus have to drop and pick them up over and over, here is a strategy that I use:

Have a note (sticky notes, text file, whatever works for you) for each project you work on. When you start the project, list the big steps that will need to be done, and as you come across more information, add them to the list. That's your ToDo list. Also have a journal file of what you have done. This can be the same or a single file for everything. But when you need to drop a project for another, before stopping that project, write down where you are in the process, what you've just done, and what you expect to need to do next.

When you pick up a project again, you have notes on what you have done, what you need to do, and enough notes to remind you where you were in the process. That makes the switching a bit easier. You can figure out what types of reminders work best for you, how much detail you need to pick up where you were.

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This sounds good. I already do this ... but not coherently. If I start doing it coherently, there's more than one benefit (for example, presenting my boss with 'what-ifs' for my use of time). – Smandoli Apr 17 '14 at 18:45

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