Context switching

There’s a study out there that says context switching costs fifteen minutes to get back into the task.

The classic example: You are doing some deep thought work and have been nose-deep in code or spreadsheet formulas or editing for an hour. Your phone rings. Interrupted, when you settle back down to your deep work, it takes ten to twenty minutes to get back into the flow. This is not the same thing as multi-tasking; that would be something like having a telephone conference and writing code at the same time, theoretically doing both equally well.

That has not been my experience and I think it’s been a major success factor for me. Is it innate? I never took a class in it, I never had a boss tell me to practice it or give me tips. Apparently I have the ability to regain the flow within a briefer period of time. More than that, I thrive on this style of work. I feel best when I have several things going on and I can hop between them during the course of a day or a week. I have a lot of meetings and often ten to thirty minute chunks between them in which I can still get a little further along in my deep work.

Giant caveat: There is work that truly needs a long stretch of uninterrupted thought, and there are days when context switching is harder. I’ll talk about that Friday.

But do I have tips? Can I teach you how to do it? Probably not, but here are some factors that might be setting me up for success:

  • Preparation. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I have broken my deep work down into smaller, tangible chunks. This means I don’t have to stop as often to think about the next step.
  • I talk to myself out loud when doing deep work. Hearing what I’m thinking starts to transform my fleeting thoughts into a deeper sort of storage, into something I “just know” and don’t have to think about again the next time I pick the task up.
  • If I’m at a stopping point or interrupted, I leave myself a note directly in my work, a sentence about what I was trying to figure out or what I was planning to do next. “Just a sec, I need to make a note,” should be a fine thing to say to anyone interrupting you.
  • For any distracting thoughts I have while I am focusing, I keep a running to-do list of stuff to do, stuff I want to look up, and stuff I need to check on.
  • I’ve done this to-do list routine for long enough that I trust myself to follow up later, meaning that I can truly stop thinking about it after writing it down.
  • When I do have trouble getting back into the flow, instead of trying to do deep work, I go down that to-do list and get some quicker items checked off.

I’m still not sure these tips are helpful, but it’s all I’ve got. If you know that your brain isn’t wired for fast context switching, you should work on changing your environment to reduce the need to context switch, thereby enabling you to do your best work.


  1. Jim Grey

    I’m similar. When I have only one thing to work on for a long time it feels like torture. Give me three or four things so I can hop from one to another. Somehow I manage to get a lot done this way.

    1. Post

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