Productivity. Performance. Success

 Task Switching Kills Productivity

“From Burnout to Superman Productivity” Series: Tip 1

Brain-Updated-Task-Switching-Kills-productivity

You feel overwhelmed, tired and stressed. You don’t get important things done. The to-do list is growing every day. You are multitasking to “save” time. When it gets really bad, you feel burned out and completely lose your motivation. If you empathise with the situation, don’t panic… there is a solution!

 

Previously my life was chaotic and there was no end to the firefighting. I often found myself completely exhausted after a day’s work and with no sense of accomplishment.

 

I even had this conversation with my daughter Fiona.

Fiona:            Daddy can you change job?

Me:                 Why do you want me to change job?

Fiona:            You are always tired. I don’t want you to be tired.

Me:                 [Thinking]

Fiona:            You can drive the Japanese children to school and then come back early.

 

The Japanese school was only 500 meter from our home (at the time) so she thought I would get an easier job and be less exhausted at night. Not a bad idea! J But I never took up the job offer from my little girl. Instead I found a way to cope with my hectic life.

Through what I term the “From Burnout to Superman Productivity” series, I will share the few tips that have helped me to manage my time (and myself) better

Tip #1

Task switching is one of the worst productivity killers.  If you have to change one thing to improve your productivity and wellbeing – this is it!!

What is Task Switching? 

Task switching involves the ability to shift attention between one task to another. This ability allows a person to rapidly and efficiently adapt to different situations. This sounds good right?

 

NO! TASK SWITCHING IS NOT GOOD! Why? Because…

 

1) You can only conduct one mental activity at a time.

And…

2) If you do a lot of task switching in a day, it can be very costly.

And it gets worse…

3) This is especially apparent if the task is complex.

 

Joel Spolsky describes the task switching for programmers:

“Task switches take a really, really, really long time. That’s because programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once. The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming.”

 

In fact, a 2001 research by Professor David E. Meyer has shown that even brief mental blocks by shifting between tasks can lead to a 40 percent “waste” in productivity.

 

I find that task switching can be very costly for my performance for two main reasons:

  • The mental resources required to change “context” from one task to another can drain my energy and cause unhealthy stress over time.
  • Every disruption requires a new “start-up” time to get in to the flow.

 

To minimize this waste it’s very important to do “one thing at time” and avoid attention shifting at any cost. This is especially important in activities that need your full attention (e.g. reading, writing, problem solving, programming)

This is what works for me.

 

1) Schedule “focus” time

I have started to schedule “focus” time outside the office. I often start the day in a coffee shop alone to have time to clear off some high priority items on my action list.

If you are unable to schedule high priority work outside the office, you must find an undisturbed environment in the office. Some people schedule time early in the morning to complete high priority task before their colleagues arrive in the office. Or find a way to limit distractions. Reduce noise with headphones if you find that works for you.

Your organization (or your team) should agree on rules for when you have “focus time” and when you can be disturbed.

What’s important is that you MUST find this “focus” time for tasks that require your full attention.

 

 2) Schedule “collaboration” time for social interactions

Collaboration matters in any business.

I schedule “collaboration” time everyday when I’m in the office where I expect to be interrupted. My time is predefined for meetings or social interactions.

I hardly do any planning, reading or writing that needs my full attention in the office. Since this time is scheduled, I don’t feel stressed when I get interrupted.

Note: don’t use this time to disturb other people’s focus time!!

 

3) Ban technology from meetings

If you have decided that a meeting is important enough for you to attend, then by all means you must give it your full attention.

Put your phone on silent and focus on the meeting. 

 

4) Schedule time for digital interactions

Emails, social media and mobile messaging applications can make your job easier and more productive.  Unfortunately, being “connected” all the time also comes with unwanted side effects.

We waste time and attention on relatively unimportant digital distractions.  This is bad for our productivity.  Even worse, it can lead to increased stress levels and serious health problems.

My solution has been to avoid checking emails, text messages and social media other than on predefined time slots. I will discuss this in more detail in a future post.

 

Discussion

Everyday brings surprises so you can’t avoid taking on some task switching occasionally.  But by using the simple tips above, you will be able to avoid many ad-hoc and time consuming interruptions that destroy your daily schedule, productivity and wellbeing.

Be a “single-tasker”!

 

Is task switching a problem for you? What do you do to reduce the “waste” from task switching? Do you discuss the problem of task switching in your organization?

Leave a Comment

6 Comments

  1. June 22, 2015    

    Agreed. Task switching was perhaps originated from multitasking and matrix organization so to speak. Initially it was so welcomed the idea and implementation where organization can be well regarded as diverse. In the end the outcome was not the expected where the problems of burnout, demotivating, overlapping and unnecessary missing link in the organisation or team. To avoid that, take steps as you suggested above and also in team working, we must draw a clear line and segregation of roles and duty. 5 minutes disc everyday with all team members can discover early should there be any potential task switching among the team members with regards to unexpected task switching.

    • Jonas Lind Jonas Lind
      June 27, 2015    

      Thanks for your comment Safar. This is a major problem in most organizations.

  2. Refocus Refocus
    June 23, 2015    

    I agree with a single task and being focus minded. However, I seriously think that huge considerations must be taken into planning meeting or tasks like for eg. Meetings early in the mornings for sales people. Cause picking up calls are part and parcel of their job. Not picking a client call I think is an absolute no no for a sales person. Likewise meeting with clients should also be planned in such a way that the objectives are always met. For eg. A relationship building meeting should always be in the late evening where clients are more relax while a detail requirement meeting ie. A contract negotiation should always be planned in the morning so the tasks agreed can be executed immediately after the meeting. I think for a person to be focus, an essential part of the job is to plan. Without planning we will always be distracted. Will try to practice this and see how it works out. Let u guys know in a bit

    • Jonas Lind Jonas Lind
      June 27, 2015    

      Refocus, thanks for your input! I agree that the solution to reduce task switching is situational.

  3. syazwan syazwan
    July 1, 2015    

    Agreed on task switching sometimes can cause low or very bad productivity..but this usually happens if let say suddenly our tasks priorities change because the dateline or requirement had change (this usually happen in agile development) so we don’t have choice and need to re look and prioritize again our tasks..but if we organize and managing our tasks correctly and optimized our time, maybe multitasking sometimes is not a bad idea also in nowadays fast pace environment..

JONAS LIND is a co-founder of two IT companies, one in Sweden and one in Malaysia. He has been in the IT industry since 2000. He currently resides in Malaysia with his family.

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