How can I plan and execute complex tasks in a job where I am frequently interrupted?
November 17, 2009 5:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I plan and execute complex tasks in a job where I am frequently interrupted?

My job entails both complex, long-term tasks and plenty of urgent interruptions. I find it difficult to plan and execute the more complex tasks, for various reasons. I've always been poor at planning ahead. Also, the fact that I can and will be frequently interrupted makes it that much harder to handle the larger tasks.

I quickly get bored with writing out plans, listing intermediate goals and needs, and the like. But all too often, my poor foresight comes back to bite me due to something I forgot to consider or some important step that I skipped.

Discussing things with co-workers and bosses helps somewhat, but there is no one nearby who works on the same things that I do. The people I work with are nice enough to listen to each others' jargon every once in a while, understanding perhaps half of what is said while nodding and saying "awww" at the appropriate times. This is better than nothing but I really need to handle big jobs more independently.

I will almost always be the only person involved - in all phases of any task: planning, execution, followup.

I don't have trouble doing things. I find it pretty easy to dive into whatever needs doing, even if it's unpleasant, such as dealing with irate customers or exposing my mistakes to the people I work with.
posted by yath to Work & Money (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I have this challenge. It sounds like you know the answer already, too:
I quickly get bored with writing out plans, listing intermediate goals and needs, and the like
You need to take those large tasks and break them down, break them down, and break them down again so that they end up as nothing but a very long list of very tiny tasks.

Then you follow it, doing just one tiny thing before being interrupted. Then when you go back, do one or two more. Get interrupted. Do one more. And so on.

For this to work you have to dedicate serious, significant effort to planning. It can't be a catch-all thing you do before you start "working". It has to count as actual work, with an actual time allotment.

Take whatever amount you think you spend on planning now, and multiply it by four. Now force yourself to spend that much time planning (and breaking down tasks, and breaking them down some more) before you even START your next large piece of work.

It's hard, especially if you're one of those people like me who feels "silly" planning out what seems like a pretty simple thing... but it gets easier once you start, and you will be very glad you did it when you hit that stride. You'll be able to drop what you are doing, deal with three crises, and pick it up again without missing a beat, as long as it's in tiny, discrete steps.
posted by rokusan at 5:45 PM on November 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Really tiny steps, and batch similar things as much as possible.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 5:45 PM on November 17, 2009

I've always been poor at planning ahead.

Get better at it. Unfortunately it doesn't matter if you get bored breaking down plans into tasks if that's what's required for you to do your job well. And just to drive home the point, your job is not to do the things you do well when you don't have any interruptions, it's to get them done despite them. Results. They don't call it "work" for nothin'.

Also, start putting up some boundaries so that people aren't interrupting you so often. Tell people to put it in an email, eventually they'll get the hint.
posted by rhizome at 5:48 PM on November 17, 2009

In addition to planning, plan around the interruptions. If you find that you aren't typically interrupted during the noon hour, then take an early or late lunch so you can work when everyone else is at lunch. Come in a bit earlier, or stay a bit later, depending on the rhythm of your office.

Oh yea, and just keep working on the planning. While I'm useless at following the Getting Things Done regimen otherwise, I love "what's the next action?" because when I'm lost, I can ask myself that question and get back on track.
posted by cabingirl at 5:53 PM on November 17, 2009

Your job sounds a lot like mine. The interruptions are constant, but there is always the bigger picture to keep in mind. I don't do well with any 'systems,' though, so...

My technique is simply keep coming back to it. Got interrupted? Come back to the project. Got interrupted again? Come back to the project. It takes time to regain your train of thought each time, but that's inevitable and to a large extent out of your control. Other people interrupt you because they have a job to do too. I try to accommodate that because I know what it's like to be waiting for a response from someone before I can continue. So keep the wheels greased by handling those interruptions—because that's part of your job—but as soon as the interruption has been dealt with, come back to the project. As many times as it takes.
posted by bricoleur at 6:34 PM on November 17, 2009

My work place allows me a telecommute day each week and if it weren't for that I would be crazy. Try to get one.

Put up a sign in your office saying "please, do not interrupt" -only- when you need a large swath of time - if it's overdone, people will ignore it.

If you agree each interruption merits the switching time that's one thing, but if you are interrupted for urgent trivia, learn to write the issue on the wall board and return to what you are doing. Part of managing interruption is to assist others in figuring out solutions for themselves.
posted by jet_silver at 9:29 PM on November 17, 2009

Noise-cancelling headphones and Goa trance (or whatever music helps you concentrate),
And... obsessive documentation!

Maybe this is specialized for my kind of job (or level of absent-mindedness) but I keep a couple master lists of the status of basically everything I've ever done at that job. I'm a technical writer, and I write and revise documents. Someone has to decide the document needs action, someone has to decide and then tell me what is wanted, I do it, then several someones have to approve the document. There are many complications and delays, and I have control over only one part of the process, but the guy who decided the document needed action holds me accountable for the entire process -- which requires a mindfulness I just don't have, especially with constant interruptions. So I write it all down.

Then I don't have to remember anything; I can pull up my various status lists to see what I did when. Today, in fact -- I got an email: "Please investigate this. Doc-12X9 looks vaguely familiar." Not to me, buddy. (opens spreadsheet: Doc: Doc-12X9 Descr: Product Spec Extra Fancy Soapy Soap Change: replace blue with orange Assigned 10-2-09 Routed for approval: 10-5-09 Missing approvers 11-5-09: Joe, Lisa emailed 11-5) Oh, yeah, I did that six weeks ago, and here's the nagmail I sent to Joe and Lisa.

I have one or more lists open all day long, and I spend fully 10% of my week updating them, looking for patterns, looking to see if I dropped anything, deciding who needs nagging. When someone wants a status report, I sort by whatever they care about, and send them the list. Done. It's great.

When I had a lame micro-managing boss, and was doing fewer documents and more random bullshit, I kept an account of my time (9:00 email 9:20 call from Linda re Brazil, call to Jen confirms OK to ship 10:00 file 2005 TPS reports Ni-Nk 12: lunch...) Note that lame micro-managing boss did not ask me to do this, only asked constant lame micro-managy questions that I took an angry pride in being able to answer with precision.

I've tried to bring this level of organization to my personal goals, but so far can't quite overcome my Dude, WTF, I'm not at work feelings about that.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:37 AM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Time Management for System Administrators is basically a book written to answer your predicament. It's for computer sysadmins, so I don't know if it's relevant (my guess is yes).

The main strategies employed are simple:
* Use a day planner effectively
* Schedule "project time" where you have isolated, uninterrupted time.
* If you get in early, use the time for projects, not "checking email".

Buy a 365 day planner, and write down your objectives for the day, at the granularity of hopefully 1 hour sized tasks. That's the plan for the day, so make sure you also have some slack time to deal with emergencies and bad planning and so on. Also make note of any meetings you're attending and how long they'll eat up.

At 15 mins before quitting time, take stock and see what you've accomplished, and what you haven't. Mark things you've done as done, and copy tasks you didn't finish to the next day. You've effectively planned tomorrow in advance; over time you'll be better at planning and estimating time spent. You also get a written history of what you worked on, and how long it took.

The critical part here is dealing with interruptions. There is a mental state that we believe is more effective or perhaps even required to perform complex tasks. Some people call it "flow" or focus or concentration. The problem is, getting into this mental state is not easy but getting out is simple. Ideally, set off a couple hours a day for "no interruptions"; ask coworkers to respect it and your managers to accommodate it. If you work in a cube get some form of privacy screen to indicate that you are 'unavailable.'

If you work in a team one way to make this happen is to have a rotating shift of 'on-call' for interruptions. Of course you'll need to be able to handle anything that comes around without interrupting the other people working on their projects. So cross training and documentation is the order of the day. The book has lots of implementation tricks and details, but these are the two main points: Plan and isolate.
posted by pwnguin at 3:12 PM on November 18, 2009

Come in earlier or leave later, so you have some time to work when others aren't in the office interrupting you?
posted by Jacqueline at 10:23 AM on November 19, 2009

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