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The Cost of Context Switching
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

The Cost of Context Switching

Each time we are interrupted mid-task, we pay a tax on our time and attention. The more your attention is divided, the harder it becomes to stay focused on any one thing. This is a vicious cycle that ends in mental exhaustion with little to show for it – the cost of context-switching.

While emergencies require quick responses, other matters do not.

Ah, the joys (or not) of context switching and how it can sabotage your productivity.

Context switching is the biggest frustration in a product role.

Time blocking, theme days and time boxing are strategies that will help you cut down on the number of times you have to shift your attention; in other words, locking yourself away, getting your head down, and minimising the risk of undue distractions.

Work in an office environment that heavily rewards availability?

Consider how responsive you need to be, and “be no more responsive than that,” as Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths, Algorithms to Live By writing.

If left unchecked, context switching will destroy your productive time.

Everyone appears to be working extremely hard, but in fact, they are spending a lot of their time simply spinning their wheels, switching from task to task, without ever having the time to finish something before another ‘urgent’ item is put on their plate.

Sound familiar?

This shows just how toxic content switching can be.

Hence, the Cost of Context Switching.

It will overload your brain and stress you out.

A coach once told me that their Monday morning management stand-ups are used for each of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) to make a commitment to deliver JUST THREE THINGS in the coming five days.

Less is more right?

While context switching is a form of multitasking, consider it the evil sibling of the traditional form of multitasking you are used to.

This is not about distractedly trying to answer emails during a conference call.

As the American Psychological Association points out, there are three types of multitasking:

  • Classic multitasking: Trying to perform more than one task at a time.
  • Rapid task switching: Going from one job to another in quick succession.
  • Interrupted task switching: Having to switch from one task to another, before the first task is complete; the mother of all time sucks.

Interrupted task switching is particularly bad because it can be the most distracting, is mostly controlled by external factors and, despite arguably being the worst, is the one most people are not even aware exists.

So What?

How do I break out of the context-switching death spiral?

  • Schedule all your meetings on the same day(s) or two of the week.
  • Organize similar categories of tasks and projects together on your schedule.
  • Twice a day, schedule 15 minutes of “Email Triage” time.
  • Batch and time block your schedule to create clearer ‘focus boundaries’.
  • ‘Themed’ days to split your week between focus and flexibility.
  • Build a habit of single-tasking throughout the day.
  • Add in routines and rituals that remove ‘attention residue’.
  • Use regular breaks and rests to recharge.
  • Master the end-of-day shift from work to non-work mode.
  • Prepare for meetings ahead of time, every time.
  • Use asynchronous communication to stay in sync; a communication method that involves a lag between when the sender delivers their message and when the recipient digests it, which is optimal when you are trying to respect your recipient’s time.
  • Meditate (or find a way to quiet your mind).
  • Strategically tackle your to-do list.

One step at a time my friends.

In a world that glorifies hustle culture, remember we are not actually built to context switch as rapidly as we do. There is no need to juggle.

Giving yourself the time and space to work more meaningfully is often easier said than done, especially if you are used to spinning your wheels day in and day out.

Start with one of the above tips that resonated with you the most and take it from there — you will be surprised by how big a few subtle changes can make.

Thanks to the Loom article on the cost of context switching for the closing words.

About Gary Pine

An ideas person - comfortable with creating and sharing ideas. Takes educated risks. And, a proud Bristolian. What more is there to like?

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