Use an event boundary to help you finish tasks

Balancing a large list of tasks and goals is hard to do.  We think we’re good at multitasking, but scientific research tells us otherwise.  For project managers, managing even one project requires balancing goals, constraints, and tasks.  Add another project, and the mental effort required to prioritize and balance goals and tasks explodes!  Staying focused is incredibly difficult when balancing and prioritizing so many goals and tasks.  I’ve started using an event boundary as part of my daily planning, and my task completion rate and focus have drastically improved.  Here’s how you can use an event boundary to improve your focus and productivity.

The problem – we can not multitask.

The human brain, as it turns out, is just not capable of performing multiple tasks at the same time. Have you ever walked into a thing or person because you were looking at your phone? Does it take you a couple of minutes to remember what you were doing after being interrupted? Every day brings examples of how our brains are not wired for performing multiple tasks simultaneously.

According to research, this is partly due to how task switching works.  When we think we are performing two tasks at the same time, our brain is actually rapidly switching between them.

According to Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein, converging evidence suggests that the human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”)…

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.Multitasking: Switching costs (American Psychological Association)

Think of it like this – you turn on a TV upstairs, then go downstairs and turn on a second TV. The upstairs TV is still on and using power, despite the fact no one is watching it. Multitasking is just like having multiple TVs on in your brain. Every task we’re working on is a powered-on TV, using mental power and filling our brains with noise.  Just like watching only one TV at a time, we can actively focus on only one task at a time. How can we unplug tasks and better utilize our mental power? For me, the answer is using an event boundary.

What is an event boundary?

I first heard about an event boundary while listening to Episode 23 of the Manage This podcast.  (By the way, did you know you I wrote an article about earning free PDUs just by listening to the Manage This podcast?)  In response to a question about balancing multiple responsibilities, Dr Ruth Middleton House said this:

We need to remain mindful. And if our heads are cluttered up with too many action items bumping up against each other, it’s hard to do that. An event boundary is something that says to us, that other stuff is behind me now. I’m going to start here. I’m going to look forward, and I’m going to move forward.Dr Ruth Middleton House, guest on Manage This podcast episode 23

It’s called an event boundary for a specific reason.  Ever walk through a doorway, and suddenly you can’t remember why you walked into the room? Our brains look for indicators that we are done with information.  When an event boundary happens, the brain files away the information it thinks is no longer necessary and purges it from active focus. Walking through a doorway is one of those specific “event boundary” events, and has led to this concept being called the “doorway effect.

Could I leverage one of the brain’s built-in functions to help resist distraction, maintain focus on a specific set of tasks, and purge my mental power when I’m ready to move to another set of tasks?  I’ve already started using goal statements and tasks or activities that align with those goals. What would an event boundary statement look like, and would it keep me focused on my goal and tasks?

My two rules for event boundary statements.

After some experimenting, I’ve developed two rules for using an event boundary to help keep me focused:

  • An event boundary should align with my goal and tasks
  • An event boundary should describe
    1. how it will feel
    2. when this goal is met

My intent is to describe a doorway – a specific event that signals my brain to purge active focus and move forward.  Hopefully, this statement will serve three purposes:

  1. Do I know what the doorway looks like?
  2. Have I walked through the doorway yet?  If not, maintain focus on my current task set, and resist walking into another room (switching to another task).
  3. Have I walked through the doorway yet?  If so, put away what I finished, and prepare to move forward to a new room (switch to a new task set and goal).

After several failed attempts, I hit on a statement that helped me maintain my focus through the day.  It might help illustrate what a successful event boundary statement looks like by showing you some failures too.

Some examples of event boundary statements that didn’t work.

The first time I tried using an event boundary, I wrote the following:

Huge milestone: send 2nd report, complete milestone of printing project, complete communication expectation.

There are many reasons I didn’t complete my tasks that day. My event boundary statement was only one of those reasons. This event boundary statement was too wordy, too vague, and didn’t serve as a focus anchor.  This event boundary statement just restated one of my day’s goals, and poorly at that.

I tried again on a different day:

Complete paperwork, prepare for meetings.

This event boundary was shorter and more aligned with my daily goal and tasks.  It still didn’t work though – it didn’t describe what completion would look like, and there was no anchor that would help me maintain focus and commitment to completion.

Here’s my third attempt:

It will feel so good to move forward on evaluations, and to complete them before the deadline.

This iteration was much better. By describing how it would feel to complete, this statement helped anchor me to a commitment and maintain focus.  It could still be better though. I knew what I was working on, and I was committed to finishing it, but how would I know when I was ready to put down this task set and move to the next?

Finally, an event boundary statement that worked.

My fourth attempt worked the best:

When I have completed the last evaluation and scheduled all followup meetings, I can relax because I will meet the deadline and I can move to the next goal.

This event boundary description served to both help me maintain focus and resist task switching, and it worked because it describes the following:

  • Event boundary: What event am I looking for to indicate I’m done with this task set and can move on?
  • Commitment anchor: What will it feel like when I’m done with this task set?
  • Alignment: Why is it important to complete this task set and goal?

Do you use statements like this to keep you on task? Do you have suggestions to improve my event boundary statements?  I’d love to hear them – leave us comments below!

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