Context Switching



Now that I have been back on the entrepreneur side, there are times I feel like I am running around like a chicken with its head cut off. One minute it is a sales call, then it is a product thing, then I have an investor meeting, then it is million other little things to take care of. Sometimes it seems all these things are happening in the same segments of time and they are allpriorities.

It is all chaotic and kinetic and wildly exciting, but it also makes getting work accomplished somewhat difficult. Because there are days I am constantly switching in and out of conversations and tasks and meetings and messages, no activity ever gets as much attention or benefit of full thought as I would like.

That is to be expected. In a corporate job, you can schedule and plan out things in an orderly way around your meetings and coffee breaks and lunch excursions. Often the rhythm of it all affords one time to build out chunks of time. Sure, there are jobs that are just hectic by nature. Then there are times when times pick up and the pace quickens, but things tend to get back to a rhythm.

But in all the hustle and bustle where there are constant interruptions and updates and critical deadlines, you can only parcel out small bits of time to any one task. In the process to pushing through stuff, you are also mentally changing gears like you would change gears when mountain biking over some particularly treacherous terrain. It exacts more mental energy and concentration. You are focused more on the short term adjustments and switches than on the overall goals and bigger picture.

People call this type of activity multi-tasking, but I think of it more as context switching. It is not the tasks themselves or that you have a lot of them, but the fact that you are trying to jump in and out of different tasks quickly. If I were to sum it up I would say context switching is productivity killing. Scientists have dug into the mental toil of multi-tasking and identified the switching as where the real cost is extracted when it comes to productivity. Your brain needs time to stop one task and gear up to the next one, and each switch takes a bit of time. Thus you tend to make more mistakes, overlook things, and make poorer decisions.

What can be done to minimize this context switching? My friend and productivity extraordinaire Clay mentioned a good idea though when I saw him the other week. He said to parcel out days to focus mainly on one area (or at least break it up along mornings and afternoons). Thus there would be an investor day, a marketing day, an operations day, etc. By scheduling things in these blocks you can reduce the whipsaw shifts that occur throughout the day.

This is will be hard to do I admit. I have that sales type of nature which is somewhat manic and ADD like. I also tend to want to respond right away to things, which in general is a good thing, but also leads to lots of context switching. But if the benefit is in being more productive, getting more accomplished, and have more “think time” to consider longer term objectives, then it is worth trying.


Reprinted with permission.

Image credit: CC by Dennis Hamilton

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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