3 Fs for individual productivity: Focus, Feedback, Friction

Jason Yip
4 min readDec 11, 2020

From the perspective of an individual, increasing productivity comes down to a few things:

  1. Increasing Focus (reducing multitasking, reducing interruption);
  2. Frequent Customer Feedback;
  3. Reducing Friction.

Multitasking feels more responsive and is guaranteed to slow completion times

Let’s say you get 4 requests.

4 new requests… how should you respond?

In order to appear responsive, you work on all of them at the same time. In reality, given it’s just you working on them, you’re not actually working on all of them at the same time so much as switching between them.

In the end, every requester will feel like you responded to their requests and, assuming similar sized requests, all of the work is completed at roughly the same time at the end.

Multitasking means all the works is completed at roughly the same time at the end

Alternatively, if instead you focus on completing one request at a time, every request except the last one is completed significantly sooner.

Multitasking sequence showing ABCD representing 4 different projects. Each projects finishes near the end. “One request at a time” sequence shows AAAABBBBCCCCDDDD with each project finishing much earlier except for D which finishes at the same time.
Working on one request at a time leads to significantly sooner completion times for all but one request

ASIDE: In practice, a single request might not take up all your time

Sometimes, when working on a single request, you’re waiting on a machine, a process, a dependency, etc. So you might use the down time to work on a second request, general improvements, learning, etc.

Work on a 2nd request if you’re otherwise waiting on the 1st request

The cost of context-switching makes multitasking even worse

Context-switching has a mental cost to humans and it makes the cost of multi-tasking even worse. This means the last item when single tasking might complete before even the first item is complete when multi-tasking.

Context-switching costs means the last item when single tasking might complete before even the first item is complete when multi-tasking

See also The Multitasking Myth (codinghorror.com) which includes a chart by Jerry Weinberg proposing some heuristics on the cost of context-switching as the number of simultaneous projects increase.

Loss of available working time due to context switching vs the number of simultaneous projects

Context-switching also applies to interruptions

The cost of context-switching applies not just to switching between requests but also applies to all forms of interruption, for example meetings.

Other interruptions also trigger context-switching costs

Not every part of a request has the same level of priority

What if you broke up the 4 requests and prioritised the smaller parts? It may not be the case that every part of a request has the same importance. You may want to do this breakdown and sequence them to optimise the completion times of the different parts.

Split up the requests and prioritise the valuable parts first to further optimise completion times

Without feedback, building the wrong thing feels productive

When do you want to know that what you’re building is wrong?

One approach where the person is not interrupted but realises late that they built the thing wrong and needs to fix it. Another approach where the person is interrupted to get early feedback, realises they are building the wrong thing earlier, and fixes and finishes earlier.
Early feedback can improve completion times if it reduces rework

An interruption that helps you detect that you’re building the wrong thing is generally a useful cost.

Friction is everything around a task that makes it difficult to complete

Any variant of “I spend 10% of my time productively working and 90% of my time fighting with X” is an expression of friction.

Friction is how I describe what happens when your attempts at progressing a task is hampered due to tooling, environment, the technology you’re using, lack of knowledge and the ability to acquire it, etc.

Friction is anything that impedes progress

Multi-tasking and lacking feedback generally have significantly larger impacts on productivity than friction but if you’ve addressed multitasking and feedback already, reducing friction can still provide noticeable improvements over time.

See also



Jason Yip

Senior Manager Product Engineering at Grainger. Extreme Programming, Agile, Lean guy. Ex-Spotify, ex-ThoughtWorks, ex-CruiseControl