10 Ways to Stop Context Switching

October 8th, 2007

Context switching is rapidly changing from one focused task to another in a short amount of time. Back when we were ignorant of such things, we called this multi-tasking and thought it was good. While multi-tasking is handy in computers, it is not possible in humans. True multitasking looks more like walking and chewing bubblegum than switching quickly between source code and email. What we now know is that context switching costs much of our day in lost productivity because of the time it takes our minds to refocus.

Einstein once said that single-mindedness of purpose is the essence of genius. When I remind my wife of this she tells me this is also how bugs think. You win some, you lose some.

Context switching is the very essence of Muda, a Japanese term for activity that is wasteful and doesn’t add value or is unproductive. Learning to positively manage context switching helps to reduce your Muda of motion and will turn you into a more effective person. Period.

  1. Proactively manage your email
    Turn on your email client only twice per day. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon. It sounds crazy doesn’t it? It is doable, I promise. The first guy I met who did this was one of the most effective engineers I have ever known. This way of managing email is just another example of how disciplined he was in life.
  2. Proactively manage your RSS reader
    Turn on your RSS client only once per day. Coordinate it with an email session. All the same reasons for avoiding constant email apply here as well.In addition to controlling your sessions with RSS, find a way to weed out the junk. I use Google reader to browse all RSS entries, just scanning headlines for things I might find compelling. I mark those items with a star and move on. After processing all feeds I come back to my list of starred items and read them at my leisure. This puts them into the starred grouping for quick access on my cell phone, btw, which means I can easily consume good content while waiting at the doctor’s office.
  3. Turn off your instant messaging client
    If you aren’t going to just turn it off, at least set your status to “Busy” or even “Appear Offline”. If it is genuinely important, they will call you. See #4.
  4. Send Calls
    My wife delights in telling me the telephone is there for her convenience. This is most often cited when she notes on the caller ID that her mother is calling. It drives me crazy, frankly. I have to admit that ignoring a ringing phone is such a simple, yet effective way to avoid context switching I had to mention it. The truth is that a ringing phone goes against every social moray and norm I ever learned. It seems incredibly rude, which is why I sometimes send phone calls straight to voicemail when I am trying to concentrate.I really tried it the other day, sending all phone calls to voice mail without even letting it ring. It worked. I had 4 callers and only one voice mail and that was from a vendor.
  5. Change you browser’s homepage
    If your browsers home page is iGoogle, MSN, or Yahoo, or some other dynamic site that shows news or other content that promotes browsing, change it. It is easy to get distracted every time you open a browser. Many people find the most efficient home page is a blank one. I have created a blank tag on iGoogle to use as my default page. Not sure why, frankly. That may be odd.
  6. Put up a sign
    Whether you are in a office or a cubicle or even in a bullpen environment, it is perfectly reasonable to put up a “I am Concentrating” sign. This is a polite request to be given some uninterrupted time. Couple this with #7 and you have yourself a good recipe for getting things done.
  7. Earplugs
    I am serious. Not earphones, but earplugs. I have actually found the ambient noise being blocked promotes my ability to concentrate a great deal. I first decided how much I like earplugs while coding in my kitchen with all 4 kids running around the house. With good ear plugs, I could actually ignore them. If I can do that, imagine how effective they are in a cube farm.
  8. Time box your own activities
    This is effective for many tasks including using email, reading feeds, writing a particular class file, or anything at all. For the OCD among us, this can actually be a fun little game. I recommend Egg Timer Plus. This is the same tool I use to time simulated sprints while training people in Scrum.
  9. Quicker and smaller deliverables
    This is good for  ton of reasons not related to context switching, but related to this article we can easily see the advantage of allowing ourselves to focus. Smaller batches of work gives us the ability to truly concentrate on the whole deliverable without being interrupted. A recent example of this for me was breaking a single analysis document into multiple sections and getting up to walk around the building in between drafting sections. I was able to deliver a draft document without all needed sections in it, but the ones that did get done were done well. This was far favorable to the group receiving the recommendation, who would have found little value in scattered thoughts expressed into multiple sections.This comes down to do one thing and do it well.
  10. Desktop widgets are evil
    Whether you are running OSX or Vista, don’t use widgets. I admit they are cool. They catch my eye every time I see my desktop and if a widget is showing dynamic information I cannot help but look at it. This causes a major change in my focus and draws me away from the problem at hand. Turn desktop widgets off.
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