Context switching is the Red Menace of modern day knowledge work.
In every presentation about context switching we have Gerry Weinberg’s chart of productivity loss – so let’s get that out of the way at the beginning.
So, if we think about Eldred’s five projects, we can see that Weinberg believes he’s doomed before he starts. Eldred is doomed, of course, and context switching is yet another reason why.
This chart is showing us why limiting our Work-in-progress at any point-in-time is vital. When we context switch, we lose time and fidelity. We may think we seemlessly move from one project to another, but we do not.
Here’s a quick exercise to show you the cognitive penalties for you, personally, to context.
You will need a pen, a pad of paper, and a timer.
Now on this pad create three columns like this:
Now get your timer ready.
In each column, we’re going to write a letter, a number, and a then a roman numeral – in that order. So our first entry will look like this:
The Second entry would look like this:
We want to do this to the letter “J”.
Again, we want to do A, 1, I, B, 2, II, C, 3, III….
Start your timer, do A through J, and then mark down your time.
Now, do that again, but do the letters, numbers, and romans in sequence. So this time do A, B, C and on to J, then the numbers in order, then the roman numerals.
Set your timer, do this, and then mark down your time.
The Penalties of Context Switching
There are many games like that to show the penalties of context switching. Some make fun party games, because it so quickly becomes so apparent that we are notoriously bad at doing it even in the simplest of situations.
In this exercise, I would be willing to bet your productivity was about 400% higher in the focused situation than in the context switching one.
With an exercise that is this simple, where we only have three extremely familiar variables to deal with, the penalties for context switching in a more complex environment are obvious.
We are now building not just a reason, but a system, for Eldred’s failure.
We are beginning to see that Eldred’s situation is actually violating some basic elements of human and social design. Every time he has to switch contexts, he is running up against cognitive blocks that decrease his ability to product quality work. In turn, his company is hemorrhaging money trying to keep it’s people over-stimulated, over-worked, and under-focused.
Eldred’s company, in a quest for 100% utilization, is breaking the very equipment (Eldred) they are trying to optimize.