|CSI … no not the TV program, but in critical thinking we call this the “Context Switch Interval”. Webster’s definition of multitasking is “the performance of multiple tasks at the same time”. Some things can be accomplished this way. We can think and breathe at the same time (thankfully). Generally however, at the conscious level, we really can’t multitask. Just like a single CPU computer, we can switch between tasks, sometimes fairly quickly. This is called “context switching”; switching our focus from one thing to another, and then back again.
Context switching has great benefits and some real downsides. The primary variable that determines the benefit vs. the downside is the “context switch interval” (CSI). Too short will create huge inefficiencies, too long will generate many instances of dropping the ball, missing opportunities, errors, and accidents.
Imagine you’re writing a document or conducting an analysis, and in total, it will take you five hours. If you focus solely on this task, and didn’t switch, you might miss an important call, or email, or some other important interruption. On the other hand if, during this task, you check your email every five minutes, get interrupted by people passing by every ten minutes, check for text messages every time your smart phone vibrates and check the stock market every 15 minutes, then you’re switching too rapidly which will result in inefficiency, i.e. lose of productivity.
Here’s what context switching does to your brain. Let’s say you’re writing a document and you hear a “ping” on your computer indicating you just got an email. You decide to check your email, so you make a mental note of where you are in the document and then click on your email. After loading all the recent emails you find the one that just came in. You take a quick read, and perhaps decide to answer it a little later, so you make a mental note of this, and then go back to the document window, gather your thoughts, remember where you were, and resume. A little later you decide to switch again, saving the document, making a mental note of where you are, reload your email, find that email that you decided to respond later, re-read the email, gather your thoughts from earlier, respond, glance at some of the other emails, make a mental note, then go back to the document, remember where you left off and continue. Now imagine doing this multiple times per hour, and add a few other interruptions that force you do switch between them all. Exhausting isn’t it!
Your CSI impacts more than just your time. Imagine being awakened every 10 minutes as you try to get a good night sleep. You would be a mess the next day. Similarly, during the day your CSI impacts your quality. Every time you switch context you lose focus and as a result you’re thinking is impacted.
For fun (or a reality check), try this. For one hour, keep track of the number of times you context switch, i.e. switch gears, thoughts, and tasks. You’ll be shocked as to how many times you do this, and each and every time you do, you have to remember things, switch to something else, remember and focus on those things, and then switch to something else again, etc. etc. Your brain has to constantly store, refresh, remember, refocus and rethink things.
Of course, in this fast passed, continuously changing, got to have it now, world we live in, we must context switch to be successful. Realize however, every single time you switch, you’re wasting time and impacting your focus and thinking. Do this too often and you’ll spend more time and energy, remembering, rethinking and redoing then you do on the very tasks you’re trying to accomplish.
The next time your email pings, or a text message vibrates your phone, or the phone rings, or you think about another cup of coffee or drink, or someone knocks and says, “are you busy” … think … “Hey, I am busy and focused, and maybe I should forgo this interruption (context switch) for the sake of efficiency, and keep focused on what I’m doing”
Here are a few ideas to increase your CSI:
• If you’re checking email very often, just make a commitment to double the time between checking email; every 5 minutes becomes 10, or every 10 minutes becomes 20.
• Put a sign up on your cubicle or office door to indicate that you are busy, to prevent an interruption in the first place, such as, “I’m focused on something right now, so if what you would like to chat about can be postponed for 30 minutes, I’d appreciate it”.
• Put a distinctive ring on your phone so that you won’t even look at it unless it’s from a specific set of phone numbers (your boss, your spouse, your kids).
• Set a specific amount to time to focus and not switch. Maybe it’s 15 minutes, maybe 45. Then when the time is up, go check email, text, phone message, open your office to interruptions, do something else on your to-do list … for a set amount of time, then go back and continue your original task. You’re still context switching, but you have increased the interval of interruption and therefore are much more efficient. If you’re creating a presentation, maybe that frequency is every 30 minutes. If you are a first line support rep, that frequency might be every time the phone rings.
• Think about what events will trump your context switch interval goal. For example, if you’re working from home and you’ve put a 30 minute interval in place, but the door bell rings (and you’re expecting a plumber), that would certainly warrant a context switch to let them in.
What’s your CSI? Think about what the right context switch interval is for you and the tasks you are involved in. Make a conscious effort to increase your CSI (increase the interval between context switching) … you’ll be surprised at how much productivity you gain.