How to Avoid Task Switching (A Guide for Managers)

Rarely do we have the luxury of total focus. There always seem to be distractions and interruptions. In fact, working life today regularly requires employees to switch between tasks. Science tells us that task switching is inefficient, but then science never had to finish the CEO’s draft, plan for a 2:00 meeting and respond to #Slack updates all at the same time!

So how is your team supposed to effectively stay on task if they’re constantly pulled off one task to do another and another and another?

The best course of action is to try and avoid a situation in which task switching is required. IT managers have known this for decades. They have developed processes and strategies to keep their teams focused on the code, particularly because that work requires such intense focus. But task-switching isn’t just a challenge for IT teams. It’s time now for the rest of us managers to learn how to avoid task switching and keep our teams on track.

What Is Task Switching?

In psychological terms, task switching is an executive function that allows us to shift our attention from one task to another. It’s done unconsciously. If you’re consciously moving from one task to another, that is called cognitive shifting. But both are part of the larger concept of cognitive flexibility.

In an article by Stephen Monsell from the School of Psychology at the University of Exeter, when a subject switches frequently between a small set of simple tasks their “responses are substantially slower and, usually, more error-prone immediately after a task switch.” The paper goes on to say that this deficit can be reduced by preparation.

Moving from one task to another rapidly is, in a nutshell, not easy and definitely not productive. This phenomenon was first recorded in 1927, but it wasn’t until nearly 70 years later that the concept became a source of study with cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists.

While it’s since been discovered that with preparation and training people can reduce the rate in which they slow down as they move from one task to another, they cannot fully overcome the difficulties inherent in task switching. This slow down is called the switch cost.

And for you and your team, that switch cost translates into real dollars.

How Does Task Switching Impact Your Team?

It’s clear that switching from one task to another slows down progress and creates more problems. Project teams are most efficient when they’re in flow, which everyone has experienced whether they are aware of it or not. It’s that state often referred to as being “in the zone,” when you and your tools act almost as one, and the operation of your work is seamless.

If you’ve ever played an instrument, then you’re aware of that point in rote practice when your routine of consciously working on each note moves to an unconscious fluidity. It’s as if you’re not thinking, but doing.

This condition of flow is ideal, but not easily achieved. Even seasoned team members need to work to get to this state of focus, which can take at least 15 minutes. And once this state of flow or focus is achieved, any interruption will set that team member back to the beginning. They’ll need another 15 minutes to resume optimal efficiency.

You can see how this can impact productivity.

What Causes Task Switching?

The causes of task switching are numerous, but task switching is usually prompted by interruptions in your workflow. These interruptions can be deliberate and important, such as an emergency meeting or a last minute change in protocol. Unfortunately, interruptions can also be beyond one’s control, such as a power outage.

Problems can arise from an organizational standpoint, as well. For example, there might be too many managers, all of whom are tapping the same resource, or maybe there’s a lack of office hours or defined time for work.

The bottom line is that there is always going to be something, but that doesn’t mean one throws their hands up in the air and gives up. Just like planning for risk, one must plan for the unexpected situations that force a team to task switch.


how managers can help their team not task switch

Can Managers Reduce the Risk of Task Switching?

The short answer is yes, but it takes work from managers and the whole team to limit the impact of task switching. As mentioned, IT teams are the most acutely aware of the dangers of task switching. They’ve learned that interruptions are the enemy of deep, concentrated thinking, especially when it comes to coding.

Remember, it can take 15 minutes to get into the flow of focused work. Often, during those 15 minutes, nothing is even done. But after that, a coder or team member can be very productive. Yet, with each interruption, the coder is set back to square one, and the whole process must start over.

What that means in terms of lost productivity is this: four such interruptions can cost an hour of productivity. Thirty-two interruptions, and you’ve lost a day’s worth of productivity. Fortunately, there is a way to manage tasks that can curb this erosion of productivity.

  1. Work on one task at a time. It seems obvious, and it is. It also seems impossible, as you’re regularly bombarded with multiple tasks. But if you can focus on one at a time, your productivity improves, which gives you more time to work on the others. A task list can help, as it collects all your tasks and allows you to prioritize.
  2. Interchange the responsibility for dealing with the interruption. There will be interruptions. Try as you might to prevent them, they will occur. One way to reduce their impact on team productivity is by designating a point person who is responsible for responding to changes. Rotate the team member responsible to address these interruptions, but also make sure that the person assigned to respond has the capacity to react effectively.
  3. Delete with extreme prejudice. Task management shows us that not all tasks are created equally. When you prioritize, it becomes clear which tasks are of paramount importance and which can be delayed or even ignored. Go through your task list and get rid of these unnecessary or unimportant tasks. The same holds for interruptions. Not all of them need immediate attention or attention at all. If the phone rings, let it go to voicemail. You can deal with it later.
  4. Assign tasks correctly. If you’ve given a task to a team member who is not equipped to take it on, you’re adding to the problem. When that team member seeks help, that’s an interruption to them and to whoever they’re seeking advice from. Worse, the delay in completing that task can block other team members who have dependent tasks. This creates a snowball effect that can delay or even derail a project.
  5. Use task management software. Having task lists, easy ways to assign tasks and tools for monitoring progress are all essential for preventing teams from task switching, thus boosting productivity on a project. With a task management software, you can also prevent too much task switching by linking tasks that are dependent. With the right tools and buy-in from your team, you can make task switching a thing of the past. is a cloud-based project management software that provides task management tools and real-time data to lessen the impact of task switching on the productivity of a project. You can monitor the progress of your team and note task dependencies to help get your team in the flow that leads to an efficient and successful project. Try it and see with this free 30-day trial.

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