One of my favorite videos of all time on the internet is this clip of a Scottish dad venting about his daughter’s obsession with having perfect eyebrows.
(If you haven’t seen it, you can thank me later. And yes, I do, albeit rarely, watch videos on the internet.)
Anyway, near the end of the video, the guy mentions how one of his ex-girlfriends described her eyebrows as “semi-permanent”. In a moment of hilarious frustration, he begs people to stop making up words and exclaims how you can’t have “semi-permanent”.
At this point, you might be wondering what the hell any of this has to do with high performance. Let me explain.
There are several words or phrases that get thrown around so often that we’ve almost come to accept them as true.
One of the most common of those?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but there is simply no such thing.
What actually happens is that your brain has to fire super fast in order to juggle two different things on which to focus. We can’t see it happen, so we assume we’re doing two things at once (kinda like flicking a switch and thinking the light comes on immediately).
And, we now know that this fast back-and-forth is not the optimal way to use our brains.
Enter context switching.
According to Todd Herman, context switching is “the loss of time due to multi-tasking or switching from one activity to another. This phenomenon occurs because the mind has to try and reacquaint itself to where you were and what you were doing.”
Research has now shown that the energy required to come back to the project you moved away from takes roughly 20% of our time. In a 1-hour block of work, that means it takes 12 minutes to get back to the focus you had before you moved to something else.
Now, that might or may not sound like a lot, but what happens if the time scale changes? Let me demonstrate it another way.
Let’s assume you have an 8-hour workday.
If you only work on one project at a time, there’s obviously no context switching, meaning you have 100% of the time available for the task at hand, or 8 hours.
Now let’s assume you do two projects during the day. With one instance of context switching (20%), we now have 80% of our time available, or 40% for each project, already drastically lower than if we’d only focused on one thing.
What about three projects? Well, we’d then have two cases of context switching (40%), which only leaves 20% of our available time for each of the three projects.
Four projects? 10% for each project.
As you can see, while you may be trying to get more done in less time by “multi-tasking”, you actually end up losing a lot more time than if you’d focused on one thing until completion, before moving on to the next thing.
(By the way, I’m not talking about listening to music while running, for example. I’m talking about projects that require our focus.)
Let’s shift to a habit of single-tasking and stop celebrating so-called “multi-tasking” as we F.O.C.U.S. (Follow One Course Until Success) on the task at hand.
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