Trading Task Switching for Focus
Improved Productivity with What You Need, When and Where You Need It
I love a good list. Whether it’s a weekend wish list or a weekday work list, I love the exhilarating feeling of checking off an item. My favorite kind of list is the end-of-the-workday list. Lists can be a really useful productivity tool, but the devil is in the details. And in this case, the proverbial devil goes by the name task switching.
Task switching is the kryptonite of productivity. It comes in the form of a multitude of distractions that shift your focus, drain your energy, and drastically reduce your efficiency. It’s the ever-present buzzing of notifications on our phones that beckon us to break away from the task at hand. It’s the ragged filing system that keeps us hunting for critical files that should be at our digital fingertips. Maybe it’s the plate of cookies in the kitchen that keeps calling to you and demanding your full attention.
It’s a million different things that, when combined, add up to the little voice in your head at the end of the day saying “I was busy all day, but what did I actually get done?”
Task switching can reduce our overall productivity by anywhere from 40% to a staggering 80%. According to a study at UC Irvine, it takes nearly 25 minutes to reengage with a task after we’ve broken our focus, even for just a small momentary switch.
That’s an incredible amount of lost time when multiplied by the amount of distractions we experience. No wonder you ask yourself “what is it you do here?” on a near-daily basis.
So, what’s the kryptonite to the kryptonite? What’s the productivity antidote to task switching?
Fortunately, there are many options for trading task switching for focus. I choose the philosophy of a place for everything and everything in its place. Simply put, it’s having what you need, when and where you need it. And, equally important, subtracting what you don’t need.
For example, to get this article written well and delivered on time, here is my formula.
What I Need
(when and where I need it)
- a block of time on my calendar (keeps me on track and tells others I’m booked)
- content spreadsheet from my laptop
- notepad and pen (I’m old school)
- my glasses
- a cup of coffee (okay, three)
What I Don't Need
- Email and other notifications (read as close my laptop)
- Music App (much as I hate saying it, I can’t write with it on)
- Phone notifications (and other temptations)
So, when Thursday morning rolls around and I know that my scheduled writing block is looming, I make the coffee, pour it into my work mug (yes, it’s a thing), and head to my office. My glasses are on my desk and the spreadsheet I need is well-labeled and easy to find on my laptop, alleviating any initial difficulties in getting started. I have what I need from my laptop so I close it and grab my notebook and pen from my desk drawer. No obstacles there since the notebook is always in the same drawer, along with a host of pens that I routinely pilfer from other areas of the house.
Coffee & Glasses? Check.
Notebook and Pen? Check.
The music is off and there are no pesky notifications because I closed my laptop already. My phone was intentionally left near the plate of cookies in the kitchen and I’ll pick up both once I’m finished writing. No harm in adding a reward to the work, right?
(what you need, when and where you need it) – (known distractions) =
How to Trade Task Switching for Focus…in Real Life
At first, it may require some dedicated planning. Start by asking yourself:
- What task am I working on?
- How much time should I set aside?
- What tools do I need?
- What things do I temporarily need to eliminate?
Before you know it, it’s second nature and you’ve built multiple healthy habits around your most important work priorities and goals.
Over time, you’ll find your to do lists shrinking as you’re better able to harness your focus and bring a task to completion. There’s no magic to it, just practice and some mild self-discipline, offset by the promise cookies.
Start today. Identify one task that you’d like to improve, determine what you need and what you don’t, and then build your system around it. Make a commitment to having a dedicated space and time, resources that are reliably available, and a willingness to remove known distractions…temporarily. Remember, it’s all just temporary. I love a good Slack thread on office puppies as much as the next person, but not when I need to focus.
Test and tweak your process until the flow feels good to you. There’s no right way to do it so stay flexible and open. Then, repeat and enjoy the extra time you discover and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with checking one more thing off the list!