How long does your attention stay on one thing at work? One study found that office workers switch task every three minutes. You’re working on a project and ‘ping’ an email arrives. You leap into action and deal with the email before returning to the project…then an IM pops onto your screen. It feels good swatting away all those incoming demands, like some task-juggling Jedi: the brain rewards bouncing between tasks with a release of dopamine. The more we hopscotch, the more effective we feel
However this feeling of effectiveness is misplaced. Each time you switch tasks the brain has to re-orientate itself to the rules of the new task. In fact, switching backwards and forwards between tasks has been shown to increase the time taken to complete both tasks by 30%. So, anyone habitually bouncing between activities, who allows themselves to be tempted by the ‘ping’, could be losing two hours of raw productivity each day
Big chunk your time
The impact of switching tasks on productivity is seen most strongly for more intellectually demanding activities such as problem solving, prioritizing or planning. Your brain needs more time to get into gear, to grapple with the issues. Think of it like a new job. If you have been employed to perform a simple task, you will probably get up to speed pretty quickly. However, take on a big role and you simply won’t be able to add value for months. I worked with a Brasilian VP in a major multinational who was taking on his first role in the Asia Pacific Region. He spent his first three months doing nothing except chatting and learning. He recognized he needed time to understand before he could perform. Big, complex tasks are the same: you need time to kick the issues around before you can deliver value. If you switch tasks before you have got fully up to speed, you are losing significant efficiency. Big tasks need big chunks of time
So, when you are working on that big task today…shut off your distractions to reduce the temptation to hop, skip and jump away from productive focus
Are thin slices ever good for big tasks?
In 1927, a Gestalt psychologist called Bluma Zeigarnik was sat in a Vienna coffee house with a bunch of friends. They ordered a few rounds of drinks, yet the waiter never wrote down their order. Intrigued by this, after the bill was paid and the group had left the coffee house, Zeigarnik returned. On questioning the waiter, she found that he no longer could recall what her group had drunk. One way of interpreting this is that the brain works with open and closed files. Once the bill had been paid, the waiter closed the file and forgot. This has become known as the Zeigarnik effect (and people tend to be twice as likely to remember things in open files than in closed ones)
I use the Zeigarnik Effect slightly differently. If I have a big task to do, one that requires creativity or deep thought, I’ll deliberately ‘open the file’ a few days before I actually want to do the work. In practice this simply involves starting to work on the problem for about 20 minutes, possibly in the form of a mindmap. I then leave my subconscious to work its magic. When I finally begin to work on the task in earnest, my thinking and ideas flow
What file should you leave open today?