While there seems to be some evidencewhere? that it is possible to become skilled enough at two tasks to do both simultaneously and perform well, the vast majority of research suggests that multitasking is less efficient than focusing on one thing, and the act of context switching costs time. Less efficient in this case means:
- Lower throughput — less actual work gets done as the brain gets ready to work focus on a topic1
- More mistakes — because someone is focusing less on one single task, they are more likely to make mistakes on that task
It seems generally agreed upon that it takes time to get back into a productive workflow after switching tasks
A joint report by Qatalog and Cornell University mentions an average of 9.5 minutes2
Just In Agile states in their Context Switching article:
It takes the average person around 15 minutes of uninterrupted work to reach total focus to perform a mentally challenging task
This quote links a source, however this source does not provide any specific sources to back this up with, leaving it vague with “Studies have shown”.
Complex thought relies on using System 2 in your brain.
- For a good primer, Veritasium’s The Science of Thinking is a great video.
Preventing Context Switching
- Prioritize what you need to get done. Urgent and important tasks first. The Eisenhower Matrix is a great, simple approach.
- Prevent distractions in the first place; turn off notifications, set yourself to “Do Not Disturb”, book time in your calendar, close down programs you won’t need, and put your phone outside of arm’s reach
- Timebox your work. Use a technique such as Pomodoro to block off a unit of time (usually 25 minutes) with a known break at the end.
- Set a firm, specific, achievable goal. For example, if you’re working on a user story to build out a new form in an application, your goal could be to add the field, validation, and unit tests for that singular field.
In a workplace environment, meetings seem to have a significant, negative impact on productivity, particularly if the meeting is not about your most important task and if the meeting could have been an email. Tremendous has a blog post about their high-documentation, low meeting work culture (HN comments) that seems to have a lot of promise.
- To draw on a computer-based analogy, this is the equivalent of having something in swap and moving into RAM or the L1/L2/L3 cache on a CPU. There is time spent doing that which could have been used on the actual work. Worth noting: within computer science, “swapping” and “context switching” are two different things.↩
- Potential conflict of interest here: Quatalog is a paid product specifically to make teams more productive. I need to dig into this research paper more.↩