Graceful Context-Switching: The Art & Science of Multitasking Efficiently

As much as everybody—starting from productivity gurus, bloggers, YouTubers, authors, advisors, conference speakers, and ballroom attendees—would like to tell us how unproductive it is, multitasking is here to stay.

In a utopia you can set your own schedule, beat resistance, get into a state of flow, and get things done by following a set of ideas, principles, guidelines, and hacks. Unless you are delusional you are pretty sure this isn’t the case in the real world. Real world is very different from the one painted in productivity books.

Maybe the people with these grand ideas have the luxury of setting their own schedule. Their ideas may apply to a niche who have the same luxury, but us common folks don’t have much of a choice, do we?

No matter how logical these ideas sound on paper, they are absurd in real life. But not all hope is lost. While we cannot have the perfect solution, we can definitely have an optimal one. In the real world, that is good enough.

Unlike that in self-help books, schedules aren’t fixed in real world. In the real world, scopes aren’t defined, time estimates are never perfect, and everything is of utmost priority.

In such a chaotic, unorganised, and unstructured world, the only sensible strategy is the ability to pause, leave something midway, and switch to another task, i.e., multitask.

Experts scorn this vehemently, but despite its side-effects, multitasking gets a lot of things done.

Before delving into the benefits, let’s understand the side-effects. For starters, multitasking is not doing things simultaneously, but rapid switching of tasks. And none of this back and forth switching is real work. It’s metawork. And metawork doesn’t really advance the state of the actual work being done.

Secondly, real work requires a good amount of “context setting”— playing with an idea in your head before actually writing it down, or meditating on a problem before attempting to solve it. For me, it takes 30 minutes to get into the zone before I can get any actual writing done. For all of us, it takes some time to heat up a metal before it’s malleable.

If I’m interrupted after getting in the zone, I’ll need a good amount of time to rediscover the zone again. Constant “context switching” leads to a series of, “Now, where was I?” moments where we waste time trying to figure out what we were actually doing.

Reaching a state of flow is hard work, and subsequent context-switching makes it impossible to get any real work done. This not only leads to delays in work, but also errors. If I interrupt you few times an hour, you are not going to get any real work done.

Despite its side-effects, metawork is important. It’s a necessary evil. The question is, how do we tame this monster so that it doesn’t turn on us.

Time will always be lost in metawork, but we have to prevent it from reaching its nightmarish extreme when all the time is spent in doing metawork, and none spent in doing real work. This happens when you take on more work than you should and there’s (theoretically) infinite overhead.

If you’ve ever had a moment where you wanted to stop doing everything just to have the chance to write down everything you were supposed to be doing, but couldn’t spare the time, you recognise this state very well.

When merely remembering everything we need to be doing occupies our full attention, or prioritising every task consumes all the time we had to do them, or our train of thought is continually interrupted before those thoughts can translate to action—it feels like panic. This is when your system (literally) crashes.

A simple tactic to avert this fate is to master the art of saying no so that you don’t have more than necessary overhead. But it has its limitations. You cannot say no to everything, especially when it comes from your boss.

The other tactic is to act dumber instead of smarter. Choosing how to schedule your day or figuring out what to do next is overwhelming enough to crash your system. It’s also time consuming. Therefore simply do things at random.

Instead of answering the “most important” emails first—which requires an assessment of the whole picture that may take longer than the work itself—just answer the emails in random order, or in whatever order they appear in your inbox.

This isn’t the smartest way, but compared to your system crashing—where you’re making no progress whatsoever—doing tasks inefficiently in the wrong order is better than doing nothing at all.

Getting real work done involves a negotiation between two principles—responsiveness (how quickly you can respond to things) and productivity(how much you can get done overall)—that aren’t fully compatible. That’s why the whole issue is so complex! And that’s the reason people hire assistants so that they can be productive while their assistants remain responsive. But all of us cannot afford assistants.The best strategy for those of us who cannot afford assistants is to slow down to an optimum level.

Commit to a task for a minimum amount of time (productivity) before you even think about context-switching (responsiveness). This way you avoid getting overwhelmed. This is what pomodoro technique is based on—commit to something for a given amount of time before thinking about anything else. As mainstream as this may sound, it’s actually very effective.

But how much time should you allocate? Although it appears tricky—because the more productive you are, the less responsive you are—it has a straightforward answer. Decide how responsive you need to be—the minimum amount—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more responsive than that.

If you don’t require to respond to emails in less than twenty-four hours, limit yourself to checking your messages only once a day. Don’t pay your credit card bills as they arrive. Instead take care of them all in one go when the last bill comes. This is planned procrastination. Procrastinate as long as you should, but not more than that.

Software startups do fixathons. They tolerate buggy products in favour of moving fast. But once it gets beyond a certain limit that it starts to hurt growth, they conduct fixathons—hackathons to crush bugs.

The secret to graceful context switching is minimum responsiveness to get most productivity. Holding office hours is a way of coalescing interruptions from students. Weekly standups is another example. Whatever their drawbacks, regularly scheduled meetings are one of our best defences against spontaneous interruptions and unplanned context switching.

Graceful context-switching is the only antidote to an ASAP culture where everything is expected in realtime which in turn gets no real work done.

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