Manage interruptions by writing down enough context to continue later: organized notes must detail status and next steps.
Brad Pierce: Preserve Context in Writing to Manage Interruptions
On longer time scales, when you must drop something for a while, it’s important, before doing so, to leave behind enough context for yourself to swap it back in. Write down some organized notes about where you were, what still needed to be done, etc. Keeping a log can be a big help, too, but it’s not a substitute for a high-level summary before suspending the task.
A good mental model for suspending a task is to leave behind the sort of information that you would need to hand it off to another person to finish.
Pretend that you are handing off the task to another person and you will be going away on a long vacation and unavailable to answer further questions, because when you come back to the task you will effectively be that other person.
Swapping in a new context is very expensive. Saving your state well when you suspend is actually much, much cheaper overall, assuming that you’ll need to come back to the task eventually.
Brad Pierce in Making the best of a bad interruption
I really like Brad’s advice and think it’s particularly useful for entrepreneurs in a couple of different situations:
At The End of a Meeting
Be clear on issues, risks, and action items before you adjourn. Don’t defer on getting agreement on critical risks, key concerns, and key tasks assignments. Rough notes that everyone agrees to means that the team is more likely to make forward progress instead of rehashing the key points of the last conversation (“I thought we agreed to…”) or arguing about things in email.
When Launching a Probe or Experiment
When you are launching a probe or experiment that may fail: plan your “time out” points and best alternatives in advance. Some examples:
- You are sending an e-mail request for a meeting or asking for action. Decide before you send it what you will do if you get no response: e.g. leave a voicemail, escalate, try alternatives, etc.. This is a variation on a premortem where you anticipate failure and what you will do to address it. But your state of information won’t substantially change with silence. While you still have the full context, plan out you next two or three steps so that you can also put them on the calendar without having to revisit the situation.
- You are trying to fix a problem or defect. Decide on two or three options you can try that may fix the problem so that you can either shift to the next one or start two or three efforts in parallel. Obviously if the failure of your first attempt provides new information you may change your follow up, but it’s worth trying to anticipate now what are the most likely failure modes and writing that into your plan so that you don’t have to recover your full context to continue to take action.
Schedule Time to Document Your Context
Schedule time for documenting context in advance of predictable interruptions: allocate time to write down the key aspects of where you are before anything that will trigger a context shift such as scheduled conversations with other people, the end of the day, end of the week, the start of a parallel or overlapping project commitment etc…
Create “Buffer Days” To Clear Administrivia Backlog
Group Low Context Activities Into Clusters: I am borrowing this from Dan Sulivan’s “The Great Crossover.”
- Focus Days: you work with undivided concentration on key business activities.
- Free Days: time you spend to relax and recharge with family and friends, no business activity.
- Buffer Days: time you spend cleaning up, preparing, running errands, and otherwise make your focus days more effective.
Buffer days and free days are filled with tasks that don’t require you to store context. See also
- “Make Your List At the End of the Day” by Brad Pierce
- “Makers Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” by Paul Graham
- “Focus Needs Buffers and Free Time” by Sean Murphy
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