The High Cost of Task Switching

Remember the last time you worked on a weekend and completely cleared off your desk? Or the night you worked late and finished a project in less time that you thought it would take? Why can’t we do that during the work day?

Task switching.

During the weekend and the late night, you gave yourself a period of single focus. One without interruptions. A time of dedicated concentration on a single task. And it paid off.

If there is one controllable behavior that gets in the way of personal productivity, it is task switching.

What does task switching look like? We start many things during the day, but don’t finish them because we interrupt ourselves and move on to other tasks. Back and forth, back and forth. We check email too frequently, we have unnecessary notifications set up on our computers, we leave the door open to the office and allow all of our time to belong to others. 

And the costs? Here are a few:

  • High start up time – the time to settle into a project and ramp up our thinking- is repeated over and over again
  • Information goes missing – as we lose some of the thoughts we were forming before the interruption
  • Superficial, barely adequate completion of the task when it finally becomes so urgent that we must finish in spite of the lack of deep thinking
  • Finally, there is a high psychological cost to never finishing – this feeling of being out-of-control

The worst news here is that task switching is usually self-inflicted inefficiency. There will be occasional instances, of course, where you don’t control your calendar, but for the most part this is caused by poor habits. Try a few days of fewer but longer single-focus work sessions and see how productive you are!

 

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