When we think of productivity, we often try to figure out how we can get as much done as quickly as possible. Sometimes this means trying to do more than one thing at once, or attempting to move rapidly from one task to another. While it’s true that the ability to switch tasks is an important part of your cognitive function, it’s also true that you need to be careful. Frequent task switching isn’t always the best way to go about your work, and it could ruin your overall productivity.
What is Task Switching?
Just what it sounds like, task switching is the act of moving from one task to another. When it comes to your mind, it’s the ability you have to move your attention from one task to another task. Basically, it’s when you change your focus. Task switching can take place when you decide to stop working and check Facebook, as well as when you are distracted from doing the dishes to answer the phone.
Task switching can also take place when you think that you are multitasking. There is a myth that you can do multiple things at once, such as pay attention to the road and text, or that you can talk on the phone and write a blog post. However, the reality is that there is no such thing as multitasking, except under very specific conditions. When you’re “multitasking,” there is a very good chance that you are actually task switching rapidly with your attention.
Unfortunately, studies indicate that this type of brain activity is very inefficient, and that it can cost you in terms of productivity.
Why Task Switching Slows You Down
Every time your brain has to switch gears, you lose a little bit of time and focus. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but you might be surprised at the cumulative effects. You can see this when you look at some of the research done on task switching and multitasking:
[M]ultitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
That’s right: You can lose up to 40 percent of your productive time due to task switching. You think you’re working efficiently with the help of multitasking, but you’re actually working less efficiently because your brain is constantly shift gears, and trying to manage where it puts its attention.
When you shift from “work mode” to “social media mode” and then back again, it can be problematic. This is one of the reasons that I try to finish a writing assignment before I check email or update my social media. It’s also why, before I start writing an article, I line up all of my research and my sources. That way, I don’t have as much task switching to do as I look for information.
I’ve also started incorporating strategies like the Pomodoro technique into my work day. These strategies encourage you to focus on one task at a time, and the switch tasks for a few minutes, doing something else, before switching back again. Compartmentalizing your work and your day can help you better focus on the task at hand, and avoid letting your attention wander.
Task switching isn’t the end of the world. We all have to do it. However, the idea is to employ strategies that reduce the different ways your attention can be pulled while you are trying to be productive. That way, you can use more of your time to get more done.
One of the things I’ve learned about productivity is that trying to do multiple things at once just makes a bit of a mental mess and slows you down. It also leads to sloppier work. Frequent task switching usually means that you can’t be fully focused and engaged on one thing at a time, and that means both things suffer. When I try to get work done while talking on the phone with my dad, it doesn’t work that well. The same is true if I put a YouTube video on in the background while I try to work. My brain processing is constantly switching my attention, and those little switches, and the efforts to get back into focus slow me down and result in poor work.
Get over your desire to multitask, and you’ll be well on your way to better managing your task switching.