The Problem with Task Switching

July 5, 2015

Categories: Efficiency,Focus,Work

If you want to maximize your efficiency, it’s a good idea to minimize the amount of time you spend task switching.

What is task switching exactly?

Task switching occurs when you shift your focus to something new. For example, let’s say you are working on a project at work. For me, that means I might be writing a paper or preparing a lecture.

All of a sudden, I receive an email. A notification pops up on my computer, and I hear a beep. I click over to my email, read the email, decide if I need to respond, and write a quick note back. Then, I minimize my email window, and try to get back to writing my paper. This process might take 10 minutes.

During this 10-minute period of time, I had to task switch twice. The first task switch was when I changed my focus to my email. The second task switch was when I changed my focus back to writing my paper.

The take home message is that you lose efficiency with each task switch. Each time you switch tasks, you have to get acclimated to the new thing you are doing. Each time I go back to working on my paper, for example, I have to remember where I was and what the next step is.

We live in a very connected world that is full of distractions. If you switch tasks every time you get a phone call, email, or Facebook notification, you are losing a lot of efficiency each day.

So what’s the alternative? I think there are two keys to minimize task switching.

  1. Remove the distractions. It may not seem like it, but we actually have a lot of control over our environment. Be ruthless about eliminating distractions to the extent you are able. Shut off your phone. Turn off notifications (e.g., email, Facebook) on your phone. Don’t work with your email open. Shut the door of your office. Work on your environment to eliminate distractions.
  2. Chunk your tasks. Instead of switching back and forth from one task to another, chunk your tasks. Commit to spend an hour on a particular project, and don’t divert your attention to something else during that hour. Schedule specific times to respond to email, and don’t open your email outside of those times. Work in large chunks to minimize task switching.

Discussion: How does task switching show up in your life? Do you find yourself jumping back and forth from one task to another throughout your day? What do you think about removing the distractions and chunking your tasks?

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5 Comments

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  5. Stack Your Meetings – Joshua N. Hook September 6, 2020 at 1:59 pm - Reply

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