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Switching costs

Welcome to Love Mondays, a weekly newsletter designed as a 3-minute hit to fire up the other 10,077 minutes of your week.

Gaining traction requires active avoidance of dis-traction. I so want to believe I can do everything at once. But our brains are hardwired to do one thing at a time.[i] While we might think we are multitasking, we’re not. As far as our brains are concerned, we are fully switching back and forth between tasks. And this costs us in productivity, creativity and overall intellectual capacity.

How might you design multitasking out of your day (or a part thereof)?

Write down a plausible schedule of a focused working day.

Consider: how might you ringfence distraction-free time for your important work?

Practice: turning off notifications, not answering calls, having someone look after the kids, not going to the kitchen for coffee, tea or snacks… and just concentrating.

Decide to: organise your working day to minimise switching costs.

The science of switching costs

Multi-tasking, or disrupted attention, ‘produces shallower thinking, reduces creativity, increases errors and lowers our ability to block irrelevant information,’ says Dr Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The advent of the technological age has exacerbated the multi-tasking problem, technology is rewiring our brains to be addicted to disruption. Our email pings, Zoom calls happen at all hours, and we’re working to deadlines in different time zones. Covid has blurred work and home life in a way that should save us time but burns us out due to switching costs. Interruptions aren’t just external. We’re actually just as likely to interrupt ourselves as we are to be interrupted.

Cognitive scientist Yana Weinstein

gives a simple demonstration of switching costs. She challenges us to time ourselves doing three tasks:

  1. Count up from 1 to 26

  2. Recite the alphabet from A to Z

  3. Switch between numbers with letters, 1-A-2-B-3-C, etc

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