Context Switching

By |2020-12-01T09:11:01-07:00December 8th, 2020|

Sparkchasers Episode 14 | Show Notes

How Context Switching is Holding You Back


 I’ve been thinking about you a lot the last few weeks. Because as I’ve been in various teacher groups, chatting with our Accelerator members, and reading lots of emails from our community, I’m hearing that everyone is feeling a little stuck. Like, literally stuck. You can’t go anywhere right now because of the pandemic, but you feel like you just need to get away. Or maybe you’re trying to switch between in-person, hybrid, and virtual teaching and can’t seem to make progress anywhere.

If that is resonating with you today, I have a little something that may help: the phenomenon called Context Switching. When I discovered this idea, it totally changed how I managed my day and has given me so much momentum to get unstuck and start moving forward. And I want that for you, too. So let’s dive in together.

What is Context Switching?

So in computing, a context switch is when an operating system stores where you’re at so you can go back later. It essentially allows you to multitask. Now, multitasking can be great at certain times – like when your computer is trying to do multiple things for you at once. But it’s terrible for us as humans. 

Multitasking never allows you to fully focus on one thing. Your attention is pulled in so many different directions that you’re not able to do any one of them well. So here’s where this becomes important to us. Context switching in humans is when we’re jumping back and forth between tasks all day, every day. And according to research, it actually eats up almost 80% of your time. Here’s what that might look like:

  • Working on 3-4 different projects on the same day
  • Moving between tasks and never finishing any of them
  • Writing an email, then working on curriculum, then grading a student assignment

How Context Switching Holds You Back

Now context switching might sound like a normal day for you. I know it did for me. But here’s where the research gets really interesting. When we context switch during our day, we lose momentum and focus. So every time we start a new task, it takes our brains time to let go of what we were working on and switch over. That causes us to lose time. Which is why when we’re working on so many things during a day, it can sometimes feel like we haven’t accomplished anything at all. In fact, according to psychologist Gerald Weinberg, context switching can cost us anywhere from 40-80% of productivity time.

Here’s how this breaks down in real life:

  • Focusing on one task at a time = 100% of your productive time available
  • Juggling two tasks at a time = 40% of your productive time for each and 20% lost to context switching
  • Juggling three tasks at a time = 20% of your productive time for each and 40% lost to context switching

I actually learned about this from mindset coach Todd Herman. Herman coaches Olympic Athletes to use their minds as a part of their training practice. As Herman explains, context switching feels like spinning your wheels. You’re pushing hard on the gas but you’re not going anywhere.

How to Realign Your Work

So what do you do instead? Herman suggests something called the Block and Tackle method. Dan Tricarico talks about this on his blog, The Zen Teacher as well. In the Block and Tackle method, you’re going to block off sections of your day to work on a single task. Nothing else is able to happen during that time block – you’re just going to tackle that one task. You’ll work on it with total focus during that time and when the time is up, you’re able to move to the next block.

When you do this, you’ll want to turn off all distractions. So turn off text notifications, email notifications, the ringer on your phone, etc. Then dig into that task for the time you’ve allotted. You’ll be amazed at how much you can actually get done.

Here’s how that looks for me in practice:

  • Every Monday morning from 9-10AM is email clean up time. From 10-12, it’s podcast work. From 1-4, I’m working on one big task I have for the week. Right now, that’s getting our new lesson packs out to people.
  • Tuesdays I work on a different focus. The email block stays the same every day. But Tuesdays blocks are for creation of new products, tools, resources, etc. 
  • Wednesdays are my meeting days. Any meeting I have gets added to Wednesdays only. This allows me time to focus on each person and project, as well as time after that day to actually work on the next steps from those meetings.
  • Thursday morning blocks are reserved for addressing the needs from Wednesday meetings. Afternoon blocks are reserved for my team to brainstorm and work on larger projects with me.
  • Fridays are all about creation. My Fridays look very similar to my Tuesdays.

As teachers, your blocks are going to look VERY different based on your schedule. What I want you to focus on is the blocks around your teaching schedule. Give yourself a set time to work on emails, that next big lesson planning project, or grading. Don’t try to do it all every day. Instead, work intently on one thing at a time with a plan for when you’ll get to the big items on your list. Then come on back and let me know if you’re seeing bigger progress. Remember: your framework for this might look different than mine, but that’s okay. The key is to be intentional and make this idea work for your unique situation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions about this topic.  Remember, you can use the ask me anything button below to share with me your ideas and what’s bubbling to the surface for you. And if you are enjoying the show and know someone who could benefit from our discussions, please share the podcast with them. Together, we can chase the spark of our ideas and make a brighter future for everyone. I’ll see you soon.

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