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Switchtasking: what is it and how to avoid it?

In The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done, author Dave Crenshaw shares the powerful concept of “switch-tasking.” He argues that multitasking is a myth since most of the time, we’re either actively or passively switch tasking. 

Of course, that makes sense because I’ve been sold on “single-tasking” since I was a high-schooler. But what the hell is switch tasking? Here you go:

  1. Each time we handle multiple tasks, we don’t do them all together but switch between then. It’s just that we do it at such a frenetic pace that it feels like we’re working on several things at once. (Ever had “one of those days” at the workplace? Chances are you were switch tasking.) 
  2. From a scientific point of view, when we’re focusing on one thing, both parts (the left and right) of our brain are engaged. Adding another task splits the brain in half, forcing the left and right parts to work independently on these tasks to chase the respective goals and rewards. 
  3. Regardless of the equal split, when you pay more attention to one of the tasks, the part of the brain dealing with that tasks wins until you switch to the other part. And one it goes until you either finish your tasks or get overwhelmed or both. 

Man, I’m tired, just thinking and writing about! 

Now, #3 is where switching takes a whole different meaning. There are two kinds of switches — active and passive. The former is when you say check emails while talking on the phone. The latter happens when you get distracted by something or someone else, like those “got-a-minute” knock on the door or pings on Microsoft Teams that you often get. 

As you can tell, it’s a highly inefficient way to get things done because there’s only so much we can do when we try to focus on multiple things at once. Inevitably, we need to stop one train of thought to catch another. That’s how our brains work regardless of your intelligence or nootropics you’re on. 

The question is, how exactly can you avoid switch tasking? The tactics are pretty straightforward, but hard to execute, at least initially. Here we go: 

  1. Initiate “office hours” to avoid interruptions by making yourself available at regularly scheduled times. Your employees and coworkers can use this time to ping you, knock on the door for “got-a-minute” meetings. Use this time for clarifications, phone calls, or specific questions about areas that need your attention. Sure, there can be exceptions, but you’ve got to set the norms and start somewhere, right? 
  2. Supplement the regular office hours with “open” office hours once a week. I prefer Fridays because the last workday of the week is usually a little relaxed (barring some, and boy, those are scary!). So, instead of scheduling 15-30 minute blocks, you slot out a couple of hours at the beginning and towards the end of the workday. That’s four hours of “open” office hours! 
  3. Use do-not-disturb during the rest of the time to maximise your focus and energies on the critical things that never get done in a regular workday, one-thing-at-a-time. 
  4. Block off your time in your calendar instead of maintaining a to-do list. Some of the most prolific people I know use their calendars like a to-do list. They plan for the whole week in advance and then block off times for each of their priorities/outcomes in their calendar. This ensures that they’re focused on a single thing during the time blocked off in the calendar. 
  5. Carry out the four points above, heck, defend it like a world championship title to foster a culture of single-tasking and effectiveness. It’s far better to lead by example than shove tactics, ideas, and illustrations into people’s throat. Let them watch how you do things and learn to implement it themselves. 

Point # 5 is critical here because people love to follow their leaders. And if they’re keen to get as productive as you are, they might even show up for some advice during one of the office hours you set. I know because it has happened to me on several occasions. 

Most importantly, understand that your brain has limitations, and that focus is an asset that you can’t afford to splurge on switch tasking. Check out this cool exercise by Dave that sheds some light on the myth of multitasking: 

And here’s another talk by Dave that you must watch!