I wrote about the downsides of constant context switching (or the tendency we have to move from one task to another unrelated one) in my last book but it’s a subject that I keep thinking about when I talk to anyone about their working environment and the challenge of creating space or dedicating blocks to time to move forwards with anything that’s more than a simple email, conversation or text reply. I’m increasingly of the opinion that context switching is one of the most under-recognised blights in modern working patterns.
Originally used in computing to describe the switching of processing power by operating systems from one app to another, this technique allows computers to run multiple apps concurrently in the most efficient way. Unfortunately however, brains are not computers and the biological operating system (as it were) does not handle this rapid switching quite as well as computers can meaning that there can be a potentially significant lag and subsequent cost on attention and focus.
This ‘attention residue’ as Sophie LeRoy from the University of Minnesota called it often means that when we switch tasks quickly a part of our attention can remain on the previous task resulting in less attention on the next one. Research by Microsoft has shown what we all intuitively know – that the modern knowledge worker spends their working time bouncing around between different tasks, compounded by interruptions, and resulting in heavy and almost continuous context switching. The more they bounce around the less productive they feel at the end of the day.
Email is obviously a particularly bad offender, with each separate note potentially a new context drawing on finite supplies of mental agility. Dr Thomas Jackson’s research at Loughborough University has shown that recovering our train of thought after even a small interruption like an email can take an average of a minute (64 seconds) every time it happens. The common practice of returning to our inboxes often throughout the day to clear a backlog of email can therefore result in a not insignificant loss of attention and focused time. The ‘variable reinforcement schedule’ that characterises email makes it as addictive to keep checking as a slot machine in a casino, and the challenge of managing inboxes proactively means that it becomes a to-do list controlled by other people. Notifications from a myriad other inboxes including Teams, Slack, WhatsApp simply adds to the challenge.
The only answer to this of-course is more disciplined creation of blocks of focused time with no interruptions (or what Cal Newport calls ‘Deep Work’). There are some useful principles included in that book such as being more methodical about scheduling your time, removing distractions, clearing blocks of time and developing a ‘deep work’ habit but this is always easier said than done in the reality of the modern working environment.
I do wonder whether more responsibility needs to be taken by businesses themselves to support staff that want to create more blocks of focused time – it certainly feels as though they would probably benefit from less-stressed, more productive employees if this were done. And if you need any convincing of the value of this kind of focused time take a look at the video below of Bill Gates talking to Warren Buffet on the Charlie Rose show. If two of the wealthiest self-made men in the world see the value in protecting time to think and do, perhaps it’s time we spent a bit more time and attention on making it happen for ourselves.