Mindful context switching: multitasking for humans

Multitasking has its cost. Learn how to improve your productivity and work better with your team by using mindful context switching.

So many things to do, so little time. When you juggle work, personal projects, and are hoping to have any sort of social life, managing your time can feel like an impossible endeavour.

There are many tips out there—the most common one being to focus on the most important task first—but few address the systemic complexities of managing your time when you have a very long list of important and competing tasks as well as other people to take into account.

Option 1: You are focusing on a single task and ignore all distractions and interruptions. You are getting a lot done, but your responsiveness suffers. People who are counting on you are stuck because they need your input.

Option 2: You make yourself as available as possible to other people and are extremely responsive when they need your input. They make faster progress with their work, but your own output suffers.

Both options are obviously pretty bad. As an entrepreneur, a freelancer, or someone working as part of a team, you need to both ensure you complete these important tasks, while being responsive enough to support your collaborators in their work.

It’s all about finding that delicate balance between optimising your own output and sharing your input to enable your collaborators to progress.

Mindful context switching and multitasking

Let’s use a little technology analogy. In computing, context switching refers to the process of storing the current state for one task, so that task can be paused and another task resumed. It’s basically what allows computers to multitask.

The same way context switching comes with a cost in performance for computers, multitasking has its cost for humans too. Research shows that constantly switching context between different tasks has a terrible effect on attention. We’re basically less focused and less performant when trying to do several things at the same time.

Fun fact: the word "multitask" was invented by IBM in 1965 to describe a computer capability. It was only later that we started using it for humans.

Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell even describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”

But very few people can afford to stay focused on one single task until it’s done. Emails need to be answered, customers need to be helped. So how can you avoid the terrible impact multitasking can have on your performance?

By applying mindful context-switching.

“You should try to stay on a single task as long as possible without decreasing your responsiveness below a minimum acceptable limit. Decide how responsive you need to be—and then, if you want to get things done, be no more responsive than that.”

Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths, authors of Algorithms to Live By.

Mindful context switching essentially boils down to five steps:

  1. Define your responsiveness: how responsive do you need to be? If you have high value customers that expect to hear back from you in less than an hour, then that’s how responsive you need to be. If you sell a SaaS product that’s not business-critical, maybe responding to emails once a day is fine. There is no fast-and-hard rule here, but you need to figure out what level of responsiveness will work for your business.
  2. Design manageable chunks of work: now that you know how responsive you need to be, break down your tasks into manageable chunks that can be done between these response times. Each chunk needs to be realistic, with a beginning and an end. For example, if you need to write an article, one chunk could be to create the outline.
  3. Schedule dedicated time: put these chunks into your calendar.
  4. Communicate clearly: let everyone you work with know that you won’t be able to respond during these deep work time slots. There are several ways to go about this. If you have a shared calendar, that’s fairly easy. When I was at Google, I saw people put it in their email signature or inside an email autoresponder if their response time was longer. It may feel strange at first, but overcommunicating is often the way to go.
  5. Revisit regularly: don’t just duplicate your time slots from a week to another. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Were the chunks actually manageable? Was your responsiveness appropriate? Play with different configurations until you find the one that works for you.

That’s it! The first time around will take a bit of work, but mindful context switching will help you do better work, faster, without alienating people around you who may need your input.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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