Interruptions are a major barrier to high productivity during translation, just as in any other aspect of life. One such interruption is switching from one task to another, resulting in unproductive “recalibration.” This article explains how this can be avoided.
A project manager asks a translator to help with a small translation. Because the translator is currently working on another task, she has to stop that work temporarily. She takes time to familiarize herself with the new task and completes it. After she is finished, she has to recalibrate, i.e., remember where she was exactly with the original task, so that she can pick up where she left off. The time taken to disengage from the original task and then return to it is a total waste.
Reasons to avoid switching
Freelance translators face many small tasks during the day. Unless you have a sound policy to avoid interruptions, you might be bogged down by a constant stream of new things to do and input. The technical aspect of switching, such as reopening files, also eats up a certain percentage of productive time.
However, it is not the technical reasons that contribute most to this problem. A much more profound effect is psychological. Recalibrating psychologically from one task to another consumes a lot of mental energy.
People perform better when they are able to complete the task at hand first and only then move on to the next one. This gives them the sense of completion and an energy boost. Otherwise, the uncompleted task creates an uncomfortable feeling of things left hanging. While working on the other task, they lose the sense of control, with the uncompleted task sucking out energy subconsciously.
Overall, it takes more time to complete a task if you switch to it while working on another task. Unlike CPUs that can run many tasks in parallel, sequential is better than parallel with humans.
How to avoid this problem
As a person responsible for helping people to be productive, it is important for a project manager to understand the cost of interruptions and reduce them to a bare minimum. Respect the time of your team (and yourself) by eliminating distractions and fostering focus. For example, if a client asks you a question that is not urgent, do not rush to answer it, but complete your current task first. Another example is running into a problem: rather than trying to solve it on the spot, postpone it until you finish the task at hand—the problem might even go away by itself in the meantime.
For freelance translators who are their own project managers, it is equally important not to jump to a new task unless there is a good reason to do so.
As mentioned above, this rule should be broken only for good reasons. Examples include:
- A lucrative, urgent project that requires starting right now and is worth sacrificing the task at hand.
- Your client sends edits of a previous project and asks you to check them as soon as possible. The importance of customer service prevails.
- A large project spanning a few days or weeks. The translator invariably has to switch to other tasks occasionally. However, these interruptions lend themselves to optimization as well. Ideally, they should be scheduled at the end of the work day. This allows finishing today’s task, without the need to switch between tasks during the day. Obviously, urgency can be a roadblock to such scheduling. For example, if a project comes in the morning and has to be delivered in the evening, leaving it until the evening is a bad idea because you will risk late delivery.
In managing high-performing people, including self-management, it is crucial to avoid interruptions by prioritizing completion of current tasks, unless switching is absolutely necessary. Not only does this save time spent on technical aspects of switching between tasks, but it also lowers stress and boosts energy through sense of completion and control.