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Cracking the technological challenge of context switching

mad-at-computerMerlin’s chief architect Mike Pnematicatos considers the relatively new technological challenge of context switching and explains how he’s cracked it to become more efficient – and kept his wife happy too.

I read an article recently about software developers and multi-tasking and how inefficient it is. Apparently by the time developers are working on up to four projects they are losing 60 per cent of their time due to “context switching”.

So I thought.  Wow.  As a CEO I’m involved in far more than four “projects”.  I must be context shifting like crazy and must be hugely inefficient.

Well, there are certainly days when I feel I get nothing done.  Fact is: Most days I probably don’t get the stuff done that I wanted to do.

When I was younger, the stress I felt at the end of, and even during the day when I realized I was not achieving what I set out to do was enormous.

Now I’m more mellow … that’s not to say I don’t care.  I’m just more mellow.

I have three jobs.

  • The first involves being creative and designing stuff – it is something I do on my own and it requires no interruption;
  • The second is being a knowledge base and resource to clients and colleagues – it requires interaction with people and by definition it means interruption.; and
  • The third is managing our business – it requires some quiet time to think and strategize and some interactive time to communicate with others within the organisation.

These three jobs tug me in different directions and compete for my time and energy every day.  I guess I am no different to any other CEO out there.

There are so many ways to be interrupted these days.

In the old days it was just the telephone. Telephone calls were easy to reject, (except the ones from the wife).  And I never answered the phone myself anyway.  I had a gatekeeper who did this and kept the calls at bay.

Unless something was urgent, I was protected and able to “CEO” away in protected solitude.

Today’s intrusions seem to be so much more difficult to ignore.

No longer can the gatekeeper protect me.  In fact, I have long since given up having a gatekeeper.  It got to the point where there was no point.

My cell phones ring in my pocket.  I know who’s calling before I answer.  If it’s the wife I answer.

Emails, texts and Skype chats stream onto my laptop, tablet and smart phones all at the same time.  Ping … Beep … Ta Da.  It’s incessant.

The emails and Skype chats tell me exactly what the message is.  Each email or Skype chat demands my immediate attention because something inside me says:  What if it’s urgent?  I get hundreds of emails a day.  Countless Skype Chats.

Context switching is going on here at one hectic pace.  Can I read and react to all of these interruptions?  If I do, nothing else will get done in the day.  If I don’t, my business may fall apart.  Can you feel the stress?  I can, just writing this. So how have I learnt to cope?

I ignore most emails until I am ready to deal with them and then I still ignore most emails.  (Right now my smartphone says 15,192 unread emails).

If it’s urgent you will get to me some other way.

And it doesn’t help to put URGENT in the subject line either.  That trick has been tried too many times to make me take notice.

When it comes to “email answering time” I scan the emails for sender and subject.

Based on that, the emails get my attention.  If I were to read and reply to every email it would consume my entire day.  As it is, emails probably consume between two to four hours of my day reading and replying.  Not sure anyone even reads my replies.

I also get every support request email that comes in from our clients.  That’s maybe ten to twenty per day so they don’t make up the bulk I refer to.

But I take customer service seriously and personally deal with many customer queries, especially where I see they are complex issues or only I have the quick answers to something that is urgent.  I can spot these emails coming in amongst the clutter and I monitor the urgent ones with our support team if I don’t deal with them myself.

I ignore Skype chats until I am ready to read them which I do often.  So I don’t really ignore Skype chats.  If you want to get hold of me, Skype chat is the medium.  Just saying.  But don’t try Skype call unless you have asked me if you can call.  There is, after all, an etiquette to Skype calling.  Don’t just click to call.  I down those.  Except if it’s the wife.

If people need more than five minutes of my time then I insist they book time with me.

Scheduling this in my diary means I don’t have to remember and this allows me to order my day.  I can block off the time they need and don’t feel that they are intruding when they take up an hour or two of my time in this pre-planned way.  It’s been scheduled.  It must be OK.  I don’t feel stressed when we work together for the scheduled time.

But don’t come in for five minutes and still be around in 60.  That’s when I get stressed.  It’s unplanned.  There are emails and Skypes to be answered for goodness sakes.

I allow myself to be interrupted during the unscheduled periods of the day by emails, Skype, telephone calls and face to face contact.  I am a resource and people need to have access to me when they need me.  Fighting this would be a losing battle, so I go with the flow.

I find that the people who need me get answers this way and seem happy.  Well no one is complaining.  Not to me anyway.  The rest, I assume, weren’t expecting an answer anyway.

I try to do my creative work when I am not going to be interrupted.  This means early mornings or on weekends.  Any attempt to design during normal working hours or while at the office is a complete waste of time.  I have learnt not to attempt this.

So that’s how I manage.  I think I am about 173 per cent efficient and “context switching” was not on my radar and wasn’t in my vocabulary until I read the article I mentioned at the start.

“Never too old to learn something new,” I say.

PS:  No software developers were harmed in the writing of this Blog.


mikeppMike Pnematicatos is CEO and chief architect at Merlin Software for Vacation Ownership. He has over 30 years’ experience in the timeshare, fractional and vacation ownership industries as a resort developer, creator of fractional and points-based products and, since 2000, as the head of development at Merlin Software – which he’s designed specifically for the timeshare industry.

Mike is based at Merlin’s head office in Cape Town, South Africa. As well as a passion for developing the latest cloud-based technology and providing a superb customer experience, Mike’s passions include aquaponics, Nespresso coffee and fat Cuban cigars. His motto is: Life’s too short for weak coffee and cheap cigars.

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