Context switching – Public Enemy No. 1?

Imagine the following scenario, you are sitting at your desk deeply involved in a task that you are currently working on very focused. One of your colleagues pops by to ask you a question on something totally different. You look up to address the question when a third person suddenly sneaks by, just to ask you something ”really, really quickly” (usually five seconds are mentioned as the time the question will take). You cross your arms and say, ”Woo, wait a minute. One thing at the time!”.

This is also how our brain work at its best, one thing at the time. Its like the Commodore 64 computer I had when I was a kid. If you were playing a game and wanted to switch to another, you first had to turn the computer off (imagine that youngsters) and then load the new game from a cassette player (it took minutes to do). Same for your brain, you need to store away your current context, ”reset” and then ”load” the new context. This takes some time for the brain to do (hopefully not as long as back in the Commodore 64 days). But if you make these context switchings many times a day, the total time adds up.

Gerald Weinberg has the following table in his book ”Quality Software Management: System Thinking” (you can read more about it here).

No. Simultaneous Projects Percent of Time on Project Loss to Context Switching
1 100% 0%
2 40% 20%
3 20% 40%
4 10% 60%
5 5% 75%

So if you are working on one project you can spend 100% of your time on that. Add another project and 20% of your time will be spent in context switching (which is considered waste). Adding a third project? I say ”Forget about it!” (like Johnny Depp did in the movie ”Donnie Brasco”).

In fact, there are now studies being published that says that context switching can damage your brain and that it will hurt your career! So try to avoid working on more things than one at the time to stay away from the Public Enemy No. 1!


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