The Cost of Context Switching

The cost of context switching - man covered in post it notes
Photo by Luis Villasmil / Unsplash

How many times do you switch tasks throughout the day because something comes up or someone needs something?

How many times do you need to take a phone call, answer an urgent email, or attend a meeting?

It feels impossible these days to focus on one task for any length of time and it could be killing your overall productivity.

What is Context Switching?

The term was originally used in computing when a CPU puts one task on hold to accomplish another task that requires the same resources. Context switching, sometimes called task switching, is no different in humans.

Context switching happens when we move from one unrelated task to another. Context switching is different from multitasking, which refers to focusing on multiple tasks at the same time, not moving focus to a different task entirely.

The Myth of Multitasking

The ability to multitask seems to be a source of pride for a lot of people, even a skill some employers are looking for in an employee.

The bad news?

Multitasking isn't really a thing.

The American Psychological Association tells us that our brains aren't designed to handle multiple projects at the same time and, even worse, when we try, our work suffers.

Two Systems of Thinking

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about our two systems of thinking, simply called System 1 and System 2. System 1 is quick, automatic, and is more or less involuntary. System 1 handles all of the tasks we do on autopilot.

System 2 handles focused work. A complex task that requires a lot of mental energy, focus, and more of our cognitive function will be done using System 2. Often times when System 2 is running, we are blind to distraction. System 2 handles an important task during which we cannot afford interruption.

Kahneman points to research done by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon as an illustration of how focused the deep work of System 2 gets when all of our mental energy is required. Go watch this video before reading on. I'll wait.

Task switching waiting gif

Did you see it? Or were you too focused on counting the passes? About half of the people who watch that video completely miss the gorilla passing through. So what does Kahneman say this means for multitasking?

You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding.

The problem is that when we talk about multitasking, we're not talking about those easy tasks we can do on autopilot, we're talking about doing multiple tasks at work that require extensive cognitive function, and more often than not they aren't even similar tasks.

And Kahnemen says that we even know this to be true.

Everyone has some awareness of the limited capacity of attention, and our social behavior makes allowances for these limitations. When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea, and they also suspect that he is temporarily deaf and will not hear what they say.

The truth is, we're never REALLY multitasking. We're context switching and it's killing our productivity. No matter how hard you try, you'll never be able to do multiple tasks at once.

So why do we attempt to?

If you are a manager, stop valuing multitasking as if it's something an employee can even do. If you value productivity, discourage things that cause a task switch and let your people focus on a single task at a time. My guess is you'll end up with much better employee engagement and boost productivity.

Is There Any Value in Context Switching?

Now that we know that context switching is a distraction that destroys productivity overall, let's look at if there is any value in task switching.

The short answer is "no." Context switching is pretty much always going to destroy your productivity because we simply can't focus on multiple processes at once. However, at times it is a necessary evil. Responsibilities at work do often require us to context switch to attend to a client or a coworker even though it will hurt our productive time.

An argument can be made that context switching can be helpful when it comes to creativity. Being creative often requires us to think differently. Divergent thinking, which is sort of like brainstorming, might benefit from task switching since the whole idea is to diverge from the focus of relevance in order to come up with as many ideas as possible. So if you are ideating for multiple projects, a context switch could help you broaden your thinking.

Ways to Avoid Context Switching

There are ways to mitigate the cost of context switching. While we can't control what others do or need from us, we can set boundaries and train our focus to avoid multitasking and the context switching cost.

Time Blocking

Creating a time block on your schedule for each new task you need to accomplish can help you boost productivity. We know that focusing on one single task helps our cognitive function and helps us avoid distractions. Create a time block for each different task you need to accomplish and watch your daily productivity increase.

Use Asynchronous Communication

Many of our distractions at work come from having to communicate with coworkers, clients, or vendors. Communication is important for customer service and teamwork but it doesn't have to get in the way of your current task.

Asynchronous communication is any communication that is intermittent instead of continuous. In other words, we do not need to respond immediately. Create an expectation with your coworkers that when you are focusing on a specific task, especially a complex task, your focus will remain on your work instead of communication.

Communication tools like email, Slack, or Skype exist so we can keep track of communication and respond at a time that doesn't interfere with our work.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is simply focusing your awareness on the present moment. Sounds easy enough but in the digital age, we're terrible at it.

There is a constant barrage of information competing for our attention.

That means we need to practice it. Instilling a habit of mindfulness through meditation or other practices, such as improv, can help you throughout your day to be able to focus on specific tasks when within your time blocking.

Set Aside Specific Time for Technology Use

Our digital tools are designed to interrupt us. Every app on your phone has a notification, your Apple Watch probably vibrates every time you get a message. It is impossible to stay mindful with so many distractions around us.

So lose the smartwatch, silence your notifications, and time block your technology like you do your tasks. Don't let technology remove your focus from the task at hand.

Avoid Context Switching to Increase Productive Time

There you have it. We are terrible at multitasking and task switching zaps our productivity so don't try it. Attempting to content switch, even with similar tasks is detrimental to our productivity. Instead, do focused work using time blocking to create a focused schedule and remove distractions and watch your production of quality work skyrocket.

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