Small Business Services

How Task-Switching Chips Away At Your Time and Attention

Blame it on the graphical user interface.

Microsoft Windows and the Mac OS didn’t invent the concept of task-switching. It’s been studied for decades. But GUIs exacerbated the problems that can be caused by moving back and forth among various work duties rather than sticking with one until it’s finished.

Your computer doesn’t have any trouble hopping rapidly between a spreadsheet and an email client and a financial report and a half-written employee evaluation. But the human brain does.

And you pay for that inability through lost work time. The American Psychological Association quotes a researcher who says that the mental blocks caused by task switching can eat up as much as 40 percent of your productive time. Multitasking, he said, can seem efficient on the surface, but, “…it may actually take more time in the end and involve more errors.”

The quality of your work goes down with too much task-switching. And your stress level goes up.

It’s unrealistic to think that you can go through the day moving neatly from one project to another and always finish what you’ve started. Even if you work from home, the dog has to go out or someone comes to the door or the kids come home from school, and your concentration is broken. But there are steps you can take to minimize task-switching. Here are some:

  • When you’re interrupted by something that takes you out of your office, use that time to do other things that take you out of your office. Return to your office only when you’re ready to sit down and work.
  • Turn off any communications-related notifications, like email. Set alarms for time-sensitive activities.
  • If you MUST check email for a response, just scan your list of unread messages. Don’t read anything else and don’t waste time deleting junk.
  • Keep your personal cell phone in a drawer or your purse and turn off the sound unless you’re waiting for a critical call or text on that line. Try to get family and friends to call on your work line.
  • It goes without saying: Don’t get started with social media unless you mean it. Schedule social media as part of your day. We all say we’re going to check just one network feed or message thread, and suddenly it’s 20 minutes later.
  • Schedule time to stare out the window and let your mind attend to things that keep nibbling at the edge of your thoughts. Write them down and try to dismiss them after you’re done ruminating.
  • When you absolutely must turn your attention to an urgent matter, jot down a couple of notes about what you were thinking and doing when you were interrupted.
  • On those days when your resistance has been down (often because of an uninteresting task) and you simply can’t focus, organize one of your desk drawers or straighten up the break room or rearrange the things on your desk neatly. Sometimes, doing a physical act of putting things in order helps you do the same with your work.

Finally, schedule time to hunt for a paper planner or electronic organizer that you like well enough to use faithfully. Write your to-do list at the beginning of the day, and pay attention to what you’re not getting done – and why not. Becoming aware of your task-switching roadblocks is half the battle.

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