On Context Switching And Distractions

Distractions are all around us. In this day and age, it is almost impossible to carve out an uninterrupted good chunk time to work on complex projects that require deep focus. Can you relate to this calendar: one-on-one with your manager on Monday at 1pm, company all hands on Wednesday at 11am, a tech talk on Thursday at 3pm, compliance training at 2pm on Friday.Between  large meetings and other smaller ones scattered through the day, you have 1-hour slots to focus on project work. After each meeting,  your mind continues to wander; you feel distracted and not sure where you left off. By the time you come back to the present,  you realize that it is Friday at 5pm and you have not made any progress on your work. Context switching  is a productivity issue that affects almost everyone in a creative or analytical role. It is also personal and people deal with it differently.  

In computer science, a context switch is the process of storing the state of a process or thread, so that it can be restored and resume execution at a later point. So, in an essence you can think of the human brain as a computer CPU: one process would be that important monthly report or mobile app feature you were working on before you were pulled into a bi-Weekly retrospective meeting.There are lots of research  around how context switching and how it affects productivity, but in this blog I will be only focusing on my personal relationship with context switching and how I learned to preventing it from disrupting my flow state. Over a period of 3 weeks, I wrote detailed notes about how I felt and what I was exactly doing  throughout the workday. The current chaotic state of the World notwithstanding, a pattern emerged around things that were getting in the way of me getting work done.

When I  would start a new project, I noticed that it was almost impossible trying to multi-task when I was still gathering research. For a project that had a lot of unknowns, I found it helpful to separate: (1) meetings with other teams/stakeholders about that project and (2) focused time for me to experiment and gain a better understanding of what needs to be done. For instance, let's say that I have  2 weeks to work on a project. I would schedule meetings with technical and business stakeholders in the first 2 days and then spend the next 3 days in do-not-disturb mode experimenting with technologies and diving deep into the parts of the project I understood the least. I found setting this time aside to be crucial. When I tried to mix meetings and experimentation, this would end up taking twice as long.

Implementation and writing code/documentation was the easiest part. I could weave between meetings and programming just fine, once I grasped the problem space.  I am not a neuroscientist but it sounds like once my brain had made strong connections around  challenging tasks then it becomes easier to switch back and forth into them. We've all heard stories of famous writers who had to isolate themselves at a cabin in the woods just to write; maybe they were on to something.

Almost everyone has had issues with juggling multiple projects, both personal and professional. So if you can relate to this blog, know that you are not alone. This is important because it means if you let colleagues  know that you need to disappear for a while and do some "heads down" work, they will understand. I usually need at least 3-hour increments of focused time to make progress on a project that requires a lot of brain power. If I know that I won't have that much of a block of time in a day because of a meeting, I either try to proactively schedule focus time during the week or move when meetings I can. Clockwise is one of the tools we have been using at work and it has been super helpful

Context switching is a winnable war. Recognize that the first step in defeating the enemy is understanding how they operate. If you want to understand how distractions affect your productivity, you can try what I did: take notes, pictures or audio recordings of your distractions during the day. Then, try to notice if you see a pattern that can lead to making small helpful changes. If you do, I would be interested in learning what you found out.