Switching is not free. Whether you are moving house or changing mobile phone provider, some amount of time, money, and energy will be involved in making the switch. That is crystal clear in the real world, yet I often see people responding to interruptions at a rate that would seem to indicate that they have no idea how much it is really costing them to make the cognitive switch.
A functional MRI shows that when the brain is engaged in thought, it lights up like a city at night. Neurological processes activate and interoperate on a massive (but tiny) scale. I like to think of the energy involved in thought like a glimmering metropolis being built in our heads. Then along comes an interruption. If we just drop what we are doing and go with it, that city gets flattened, and our brain sets about diligently building a completely new and different one.
It seems so wasteful. Yet one needn’t be a “destroyer of worlds”–levelling and rebuilding whole cities of thought every few minutes. The keys to switching smart are to: 1) first acknowledge that there is a cost to switching, 2) make choices to minimise distraction where appropriate (including self-distraction), and finally 3) switch consciously (or not) based on the relative importance of the interruption weighed against the current task.
Here are the details of how to do just that:
Make Interruption Impossible – If you can find at least some time and space in your life and work where you won’t be interrupted, take it, and make good use of that time. Just be careful that your secret early hour in a coffee shop doesn’t end up getting you all caught up on social media, instead of outlining that book you have been meaning to write. That is, if you are going to set aside time when others can’t interrupt you, consider minimising your options for interrupting yourself as well.
Capture, and Don’t Switch – Many of the interruptions that come my way are less important than the task at hand. They just happen to have grabbed my attention for a moment due to the format (such as a colleague walking by my desk with a verbal message). That doesn’t mean I need to drop everything to deal with it, nor does it mean I should put my fingers in my ears and ignore the message altogether. The most effective method I have found for quickly capturing the message so that I can return to what I was doing is to simply jot a note and toss it into my inbox. Then I can process that note when I am ready to do so using the GTD method.
Bookmark, then Switch – Sometimes the interruption actually is more important than what I am working on. I don’t want to lose the results of what I have been working on, but I do need to switch to the new task. By deciding what the very next action is that I would have taken to complete the original task, and recording that in my trusted GTD system, I can then turn my full attention to the interruption at hand, knowing that I can get back to what I was doing (not to mention remember what it was I was doing in the first place!), no matter where this new interruption leads me.
Switch Only When You Are Ready – As I have said, sometimes I am the one interrupting myself. Increasingly, when I am tempted to switch focus–check email, or Facebook, or see what’s come through the mail slot–I will ask myself a simple question: “Am I ready for new input?” Sometimes, the answer is “No.” I need time to integrate a recent interaction, and jumping into email on reflex won’t do me (or the recipient of my next email reply) any good. I have found that a simple, conscious pause can go a long way to reducing my stress. Conversely, I also sometimes give myself “distraction breaks”, where I let myself run down creative rabbit holes from time to time–but only once a task is completely done.
Increasingly, we recognise that conservation is key to a sustainable outer environment. Yet thinking also takes energy, and so switching tasks carelessly can be just as wasteful as repeatedly flicking the lights off and on. Switching smart, on the other hand, is a conservation effort for your inner environment. Whole cities of neurons will thank you.