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Context Switching is Your Enemy

January 26, 2022

No matter how awesome we may think we are at multitasking or context switching, in reality, it’s impeding on the efficiency and productivity that comes with total focus. Say what?

I used to be the context switcher of all context switchers.

(Although, to be fair, I called it ‘multitasker’.)

It’s a badge I wore with a good amount of pride.

‘Look at how fast I am! Look at all the things I can juggle! Aren’t you impressed?’

Until, one day, I had an epiphany.

Saying I felt frustrated is an understatement. I spent all day working my butt off and at the end of the day... I had NOTHING to tick off the to-do list I set out for the day.

ZILCH! ZERO! NADA! NIHIL! SOD ALL!

The worst thing was... this wasn’t a one-off!

I realised the issue was multitasking, and it wasn’t really serving me.

Multi-Tasking vs Context Switching (Also Theory vs Reality)

But let’s clear up something first.

You would be excused for thinking that context switching and multitasking are two different words for the same thing. I know I used to think that.

But although they are closely related, they are different.

See, context switching is jumping from one task to the other.

I’m writing this blog and I’m interrupted by a phone call. Or, I’m working on my strategy plan and I remember I still need to send an email, which of course, I do straight away, but not until I scan through all the other unread emails in my Inbox first and get a glass of water while having a chat to Cheryl in the office next to me.

Multitasking, on the other hand, is doing two things simultaneously.

I’m driving to my client appointment while making a phone call to another client. Or I’m on a Zoom call while quickly replying to a message from one of the team.

Now, it shouldn’t take too much to convince anybody that flicking between tasks disrupts the focus and the flow you need to do a task. However, you could argue that multitasking saves you time because you really get two things out of the way (instead of one) in the same amount of time.

But this is where you’re wrong.

Research shows clearly that doing two things at once reduces your attention, your focus and your comprehension. You’re bound to make more mistakes, and also... it slows you down.

Why is context switching bad? Why is it bad to multitask? 

No matter how awesome we may think we are at multitasking or context switching, the beginning and the end of it all is that context switching is an expense on our brain. Period!

There’s plenty of research to back it up. (just do a Google search and you’ll fall over the evidence that is out there.) In my experience (I’ve been paying attention, you see); it takes no less than 20-30 minutes to refocus.

FRIGGIN’ 30 MINUTES!

Because ... that blog I was writing until I got interrupted by the phone, ... now I’ve lost my train of thought and as a result I need to read through everything I already have down and get back into the flow where I left it off.

Efficient? Nope! Productive? Negative!

But you know what the sad thing of all this is?

At the end of the day, I won’t have done what I set out to do and I’ll end up working until the late hours of the evening to get it all ticked off, missing out on date night with my partner.

Me? Finally realising this, I decided to put a stop to sacrificing my personal life with work stuff. (Never mess with a woman on a mission!)

The steps to prevent it 

I can’t remember for the life of me where exactly I bumped into it (A podcast? A book I was reading? Who knows?!)

Bottom line is that what proved to be the answer to my quest was what Michael Hyatt calls ‘The ideal week’. The core idea is that you batch similar tasks together.

I’ve been using it for several years now, and it helped me more than I ever thought possible.

Here’s how I work it for my business:

  1. Outward facing/inward facing: I split up tasks in ‘outward facing’ and ‘inward facing’ categories.

    Outward facing tasks are the ones that require me to meet up with people. These are the ones where I need to show up with high energy: client meetings, networking, team meetings, interviews, etc.

    Inward facing tasks are quiet CEO or client work or admin tasks that not necessarily demand a whole lot of energy, but they do require focused attention to get ticked off the list.

  2. Batching tasks: Next, I allocate several days per week to each, batching outward facing tasks together and inward facing tasks together.

    So now, I tell my clients I’m available for meetings only on Wednesday and Thursday because those are my outward facing task days, while before I would just accommodate whatever day they preferred. I will still try to show up at the time they prefer, but I have set boundaries around which days of the week I’m on ‘outward duty’.

  3. No more open door policy: Talking about boundaries, it also meant that on the inward facing days that were allocated to admin, I had to put a stop to the open door policy I had with my team.

    Ironically, I had this idea that I needed to have an open door policy so my lack of availability would not interrupt the ‘work flow’ for my team.

    Instead, I now allocate a day of the week for team meetings, one-on-ones, and project meetings.

    Guess what? It works great! My team has access to my calendar and they know I don’t look at email on focussed work days. I turn my phone on silent and I don’t reply to Zoom chat messages.

  4. One Flexi-day: I also have a ‘flexibility day’ per week where I could do anything. It’s often a spill-over day. But the important part is that I still stop myself from context switching and multi-tasking.

  5. Start and finish day routine: And finally, every single day of the week, I introduced a ‘day-start’ and ‘day-finish routine’. It’s a routine that gets me started and closes down the day. It often involves replying to emails, etc.

As for tools, personally, I like to use a week planner where I map out every single week of the year. And to make sure that time with my family doesn’t get trampled on., I include my personal life as well.

Allrighty...NOW IT’S YOU TURN!

As for my final tip: Try a few plans to settle on the one that works for you, but don’t dismiss too quick.

But what if I slip up? 

Here’s something to remember: Hyatt’s idea is called the ‘IDEAL’ week.

As you know, NOTHING in our world is ever ideal, so cut yourself some slack.

But equally, remain committed. Some weeks, you just need to make exceptions to the rules. Monday may be team meeting day in your Ideal Week plan, but this week it could be a public holiday, so it may have to shift to Tuesday. Or, date night is usually on Thursday, but this week I have an event to attend, so it’ll have to happen on Saturday instead.

Aim at 80% of the Ideal week you set out. BUT AT ALL TIMES, stay clear of multitasking and context switching!

Because you, my friend, are well worth the investment! (Just saying!)

I really hope this has been as helpful to you as it has been to me! Be brave. It may mean you need to swim against the stream (Some industries are really the worst!) And let me know how you would batch your tasks. What works for you? And what doesn’t?

Got a question, as always, just get in touch!

But I’d also like to ask for a favour: please share this podcast with a friend, a colleague or on your own Social Media (Just take a screenshot, share it and tag me and I’ll also give you a shout-out!).

The more we put it out there, the less the world will consider this disproven expectation of context switching and multitasking the smart thing to do.

Onward!


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