The reality, though, as we found in our research over the last 15 years, is a lot more complicated. For many people, getting pulled across several different projects is stressful and less productive than theory would suggest. Switching attention between tasks takes time and saps your focus and energy. Moving between teams, you probably also need to adjust to different roles — you might be the boss on one but a junior member of another, for example — which changes not only your level of accountability but also your ability to juggle resources when a crunch time hits. Different teams encompass their own unique cultures, including relationships, routines, symbols, jokes, expectations, and tolerance for ambiguity, which requires energy to handle. And unless you carefully plan and negotiate your contribution on each team, you may end up doing repetitive work instead of pushing your own development.
How can you manage your time, stress, and development if you’re on multiple teams? And how can you stay focused on what’s most important? Start with some up-front planning and follow a few simple rules:
Prioritizing and Sequencing Your Work
Get the big picture. Focusing narrowly on a given day’s work puts you in a reactive, firefighting mode. Schedule a regular status check on all your projects to note milestones. By proactively identifying crunch times when multiple projects have high demands, you can better manage your time and set expectations. The speed and demands of your projects determine the ideal frequency of check-ins, and the management style and seniority of your stakeholders sets the tone for establishing priorities when push comes to shove.
Sequence strategically. Pick one task and focus on it intensely, rather than juggling. Start with the task that requires the greatest concentration and give it your undivided attention. Decide on a distinct set of must-achieve outcomes, define which actions are necessary to achieve only those results, and ruthlessly stick to them. Research shows that attention residue — thoughts held over from a project you’re transitioning from — takes up valuable mental space, so the fewer switches you can make in a given day, the better. If you must multitask, then coordinate and group any compatible duties. For example, if you know you are going to need to answer phone calls at random intervals, work on another task that can be interrupted at any time.
Setting and Communicating Expectations
Protect yourself. When you’re focused on a high-priority task, buy yourself a mental escape from unnecessary intrusions. For example, when I’m writing — my highest-concentration task — I put an automatic reply on my email telling people I’m not checking messages till a certain time of day, and offering my mobile number in case of an emergency. By telling people not to expect an instant reply, you buy yourself some time to focus, while reassuring them that you will pay attention — later. Including your phone number signals your willingness to respond but also makes people think twice about whether their request truly needs immediate attention.
Document and communicate progress. Seeing momentum helps your team leaders feel empowered and in control. Be up front when problems arise. The earlier you say, “I’ve got a conflict and might have trouble delivering 100%,” the more leaders will trust you. One seasoned team member in our research said many of his responses to team requests are simply two words: “On it.” Even this super-brief response tells colleagues that he received their request, so they know he’ll follow up when he can provide more details.
Optimizing Your Development
Know thyself. A big downside of multiteaming is the truncated exposure to experts from different areas, reducing both your chance to learn from them and your ability to create an impression. Under time pressure, the temptation is for each person to contribute where they already have deep knowledge, rather than investing in members’ learning and growth. You need to own your development goals and your progress toward them. Figure out who else on the team you want exposure to. Make your development goals explicit, to both your team leader and those experts.
Force thyself. After identifying your development goals, block out time for actual learning. Research shows that a critical determinant of learning is time spent reflecting on and integrating new information. This is a challenge, because multiteaming forces us to jump between projects with the express goal of reducing downtime. Therefore, you need to intentionally and explicitly schedule time for reflection. Obviously, you can’t go overboard and become a bottleneck just to carve out contemplation time, but make sure team members see reflection as “real work.”
Across the world, the significant financial benefits of multiteaming mean it has become a way of life, particularly in knowledge work, despite the stresses and risks it can pose for people working across multiple teams at once. As one of those team members, you can manage the trade-offs of working in an overcommitted organization and reap some of the benefits yourself.