Not sure if this has happened to you, but sometimes there’s just too much going on at the same time. Pretty much more that we can handle in our head.

This happens to me quite a bit: I’ll in the middle of an important meeting when suddenly someone comes in Skype saying “would you mind to code review this, please? It’s kind of urgent”. Then somebody will reach out to me saying “hey, I think the server’s down”. Then somebody will say “I think this issue is actually a server configuration thing, we’re blocked”, and somebody else will say “I cannot get the tests to run, it says undefined is not a function”. It’s like it’s raining urgent issues! This a way I found to handle the situation.

Besides the problem of solving everything, there’s also the problem of keeping up with everything. At this point you either are a gifted person (and I salute you), or you’re about to freak out. Also, this kind of situation where I’m not allowed to fully concentrate in anything really stresses me out, so I need to find out something that helps with this.

Let me introduce you a new set of tools called: paper and pen!

Sexy pen and paper

I found that in this type of situations, writing down quickly everything that’s going on allows me to quickly switch contexts without losing anything in between, because it’s all on paper. Furthermore, the act of writing it down has a psychological effect of alleviating that cognitive load that creates this stressful situations.

The point of this is to write down what’s going on quickly, no need to be thorough, much less precise or detailed. It’s supposed to become a type of mental guidance, so that you can easily forget something for a while and come back to it and pick it up.

Going back out our example, I would write down something like this:

Person 1: Code review: PR project1/121

Person 2: Server1 down:

  • load balancer?

Person 3: Cannot get data for xyz:

  • server security config?

Person 4: Tests not passing:

  • maybe update mock data?
  • function signature changed?
  • check callbacks

This is not something that you can easily share, so pen and paper are great because you don’t need to worry on any switch-tasking on the computer you’re probably already working with. It is easy for you to go back and realize “oh, I wanted to check the load balancer”. Ideas, next steps, things to do go down there.

For a long time these types of notes became my usual to-do list, but I had troubles in keeping up because paper is not a great tool for editing and expanding. I usually work in Trello now (you can read how I do it), but for these kind of emergencies, pen are paper are still the best tools ever.

Of course, nothing of this is going to help you solve everything faster, but is going to help you not forget and keep up more easily with ten thousand twelve things at a time (preliminary estimate). Also, consider delegating the urgent stuff if you cannot take care of it, or if it really cannot wait. Also consider that if this is too common for you, maybe you’re doing more than you’re supposed to do and you should delegate or share part of your work with others. (Reduce the bus factor.)

So, what do you think? How do you manage lots of things going on at the same time? Is multitasking just easy for you?