“Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns.Steve Jobs
In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.”
Last time we looked at concentration.
Initially, I outlined the need to consider second-order effects, and subsequently, I described how the excessive use of attentional resources to switch tasks can degrade medium to long term concentration.
To summarise, switching back and forth between tasks requires a small spike in energy usage—a toll if you will.
In any single instance this is of minimal concern, however, just as I encourage you to examine the productiveness of your behaviours on longer timescales, we also need to consider the costs we are imposing ourselves on equally long timescales.
Too much switching between tasks can back you into a cognitive corner—and as we examined; corners are best avoided.
The real crux of the problem is: the more you switch, the more likely you are to switch again. That’s not a feedback loop you want to get stuck in.
But before we look into that a little further, let’s look at the cost of switching once more—through a slightly more academic lens this time.
I promise I won’t tell any stories.
Switching is easy, how costly can it be?
Because the work that a large portion of us do nowadays is located at the ends of our fingertips, there are many who still push back on the notion of switching being inefficient.
When it comes to physical labour, it is easy to comprehend how needing to dig a trench on one side of a yard and build a fence on the other would be made inefficient by rapid switching, but when the tasks you have are simply a tab or minimised window away, what’s the big deal?
Questions like the following are posed often…
“Surely, working on multiple projects at once will mean they all progress and will ultimately still be completed in the same overall time…
For example, if you have three tasks that all require 10 minutes to complete, then whether you work on them one after the other, or switch back and forth between all three, they will all still be completed at the half an hour mark…”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case.
(Actually, why is that unfortunate? It’s odd how we say things like that… “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works.” Like, why aren’t we just stoked that we do know how it works and we possess a more effective way of doing something. Why cling to the clearly inferior way that we would consider to be fortunate. Weird, if you ask me. Ok, back to single versus multi-tasking…)
In the above example, the in-parallel option (multitasking, switching back and forth) is likely to produce work that both takes longer and is of lower quality than the in-series method (finishing a single task before moving on).
This is why understanding this concept is so pivotal to productivity, in my opinion.
When looked at like this, the basic question is: Would you rather work in a manner that means you spend longer working on an assignment that gets you a worse grade, or in a manner that gets you a better grade and is done faster?
I know what I would choose.
But it seems too good to be true right?
Well, that really depends on how you look at it. I’m not saying that focusing on tasks for longer is the holy grail of cognitive strategies that provides riches beyond your wildest dreams. What I am saying, however, is that multitasking is reducing the quality and efficiency of your output more than you realise.
Just because you aren’t aware of it in the moment doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
A simple demonstration of this principle that I picked up from a short blog post, found here, is as follows:
· You have two tasks to complete.
· Task 1 is to count from 1 to 26.
· Task 2 is to recite the alphabet from A to Z.
· You have two options for completing these tasks.
· Option 1 is in-series: First, you complete Task 1 and count to 26. Once that is done, you begin reciting the alphabet.
· Option 2 is in-parallel: You rapidly switch back and forth between Tasks 1 and 2, alternating between numbers and letters (1-A-2-B-3-C etc.).
Although Option 2 allows you to “progress on both tasks” concurrently, even without actually doing it, you can easily comprehend that it is the inferior option. And that’s keeping in mind that we can count to 26 with complete ease, and most of us know the alphabet even better than the back of our hand.
These processes have been engrained to such an extent that we can do them almost subconsciously, just like tying your shoes. Your brain has automated them into a mental program that it just needs to click “play” on whenever the appropriate time to do so arises.
Yet, even with all this subconscious simplicity, you are all too cognizant at just how long and error-riddled the combined task would be in comparison to performing the two tasks in succession.
As an illustration how reduced task switching (or greater task/time chunking) improves speed and error rates, consider the improvement you would make if you could complete the tasks in chunks of 5 instead of alternating each turn.
So instead the process would read: A-B-C-D-E-1-2-3-4-5-F-G-H-I-J etc.
While the transition phases would still require significant cognitive work, the longer the stretches in between transitions, the more efficient and effective you can be.
I bring this up, and give you a salient example, so that we can now label all of this negative stuff that happens when we switch tasks.
In the cognitive psychology literature, all these undesirable effects of multitasking or context switching, fall under the umbrella of what is known as “the switching cost”.
I’m sure that seems intuitive to you, but I hadn’t stated that directly yet, although I have used the words “switching” and “cost” numerous times. So from now on, whenever I say “switching cost” that is referring to all the stuff we want to avoid, such as errors as well as wasted time and cognitive resources.
As I said, I won’t be telling any stories this time, so I figured I would let one of the more prestigious psychological organisations do a bit more of the talking on the subject this time.
The following are some excerpts—followed by my own comments—that can be found in a summary on the switching cost on the American Psychology Association website (found here):
“For all tasks, the participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. As tasks got more complex, participants lost more time. As a result, people took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs were also greater when the participants switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got up to speed faster when they switched to tasks they knew better.”
This is an issue because as I have said, in order to be productive, you must be doing valuable work. Undertaking complex or unfamiliar tasks—provided they serve some purpose—are almost the epitome of valuable work. Anything that reduces your ability to perform complex or unfamiliar tasks is going to diminish the value you can provide and the level of productiveness you can achieve.
“The results revealed just some of the complexities involved in understanding the cognitive load imposed by real-life multi-tasking, when in addition to reconfiguring control settings for a new task, there is often the need to remember where you got to in the task to which you are returning and to decide which task to change to, when.”
Here, “reconfiguring control settings” describes the job of the frontal cortex needing to remember the new “rule” of the task at hand (which information to enhance and which information to dull, like in the Where’s Wally example in the last piece). “Where you got to in the task” is relatively self-explanatory, but this was the point I was trying to make in the supervisor story when he had to ask “what did I miss” each time he returned to a project. Finally, the point about “which task to change to, when” is one that I didn’t actually elaborate on. We could simply consider it like this, however: if the supervisor spent half his time checking his watch and worrying about when he should go and visit the other project, how effective do you think he was being whilst working on the current project? Not maximally that’s for sure…
“Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.”
Don’t get sucked into the seemingly minuscule time it takes to open a new tab Facebook on your browser, or whip out your phone (is it actually your phone though, or are you in reality its human? But that’s a story for another day…) and open up Instagram. These apparent micro-costs add up, and that is why second-order thinking is essential. The supervisor thought switching back and forth between the projects was a better way to stay-up to date, when in reality it was actually the superior way for getting behind.
Zero to 60 in…
So far, I hope I have convincingly demonstrated that:
Switches lead to Stalls & Slip ups
This is the fundamental reason why chunking—and protecting—your time to a greater extent is one of the best things you can do for your productivity. By reducing the number of times you switch tasks in an hour, or day, as well as decreasing the number of interruptions that you experience during those larger chunks of time, then you reduce the amount of time “wasted” as it falls between the cracks of various tasks, as well as the probability errors. These errors, of course, either go left uncorrected, or require even more time spent on fixing them.
While not wasting time and making errors is a component of productivity, it isn’t the only one. And to be honest, it’s kind of the boring aspect of it, in my opinion.
I think the much more exciting benefit of chunking your time and preventing distraction, is how it gives your brain a much better chance of being able to reach “top-speed”.
What do I mean by this?
Quite simply, I will consider this as when you have all of your brain “on the same page”. As I alluded to in the previous article, while certain parts of our brain may be able to jump from one task to another in rapid succession, other parts of our brain take a while to let go of the previous problem and then build momentum on the current one.
However, when we get the majority of our brain focused in one direction and building momentum on a single task, great things happen.
Different people have many different names for this. One popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is what is known as “flow”. Which is basically what we consider as “being in the zone”. Another conception is Cal Newport’s concept of Deep Work.
Whatever you name it, when looking to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of our work—or productivity—we cannot only consider how much time we spend on a task, but also the state we are in during that time.
You can potentially grasp what I’m talking about here by thinking about all the times you haven’t been able to get your brain on the same page.
Many people experience the problem of sitting down to work, or study, and a portion of their brain is trying to focus on the problem, while all the other parts are thinking about what they need to do that night, what their friend told them the other day, what they will eat for lunch in an hour, what they want to do on the weekend etc.
At this point, most people get so frustrated at not being able to focus on their work that they give up entirely and do something else, or resort to sitting in the same spot but spend their time scrolling social media.
Given time, and practice, you can become much better at quieting the noise of distracting thoughts and getting more of your brain operating on the same page.
It doesn’t happen instantaneously though, you need to give it some time so that the message “hey, we are working on a specific problem here” can be passed around.
It is worth it though, because in order to produce work that is at the cusp of our abilities, something that strikes a harmony between contrasting elements—such as the balance between the analytical and the creative—we need to be in a state of “flow”, with our entire brain working on a problem and doing true deep work.
Not only do “many hands” make light work, but they also make qualities of work that were previously unreachable, possible.
When it comes to achieving this state though, as I said, you need to give yourself time. Personally, I find it takes me about 20-30 minutes, on average, of focused work to reach this state. Sometimes it’s faster, and sometimes it isn’t.
I’ll reiterate, because I strongly believe it, this state is worth finding.
“Flow” or “deep work” is often described as “feeling like the work is just flowing out of you”, and I would support that description. Not only does the work flow out of you, with little hesitation or resistance, but again, it also tends to be some of your highest quality work possible. This is why it is like being “in the zone”. All the right moves and answers seem automatic.
It is for this reason that we desperately want to chunk and protect our time. With each minute of undistracted focus, you not only produce more work, but you also move progressively closer to a flow state—at which point your efficiency, effectiveness and almost all your cognitive capacities will be at top-speed.
Feeling effortless, to boot.
The Obscure Field of Sandwich Theory
The simple way I conceptualise the switching cost and time-chunking, is with sandwiches.
Bear with me ok…
Let’s say you’ve got a chicken sandwich. You really like chicken, and it is also full of protein which aligns with your health goals. The more you can eat, the better.
Bread on the other hand, makes you feel a little bloated, and contributes non-protein calories. It’s not the worst thing you could be eating, but the return on the opportunity-cost of eating it, is minimal.
Let’s say you’ve decided that you are going to eat 500 grams of chicken, regardless of the calories contributed by the bread. You will feed your precious muscles their protein and put up with some additional fat-gain.
Based on this reasoning, every day you are now eating 5 sandwiches (10 slices of bread), each with 100 grams of chicken on them.
Then one day, you are talking to your friend—who is doing a PhD in mathematical modelling—and he tells you he has been working on your chicken sandwich problem. He claims he has cracked it.
“Based on the algorithms we have been working on and feeding into our machine-learning software, we have reached the tentative conclusion that if you increase the amount of chicken you put on each sandwich, you can eat the same amount of chicken, but get this… With less bread!”
Your jaw hits the floor. You never even considered this option.
To be fair you were too busy taking selfies and writing #beastmode on all your Instagram captions to even consider it. And besides, that’s what those dweebs who study math are for anyway.
Your friend continues:
“My research assistants spent 6 weeks on this problem, and they have discovered that if you increase the amount of chicken on each sandwich up to 125 grams, you can cut out 2 whole slices of bread. You can eat 500 grams of chicken by consuming only 4 sandwiches!”
Your head is nearly exploding at this point trying to stay up with all the complex mathematics.
After about 15 minutes you seem to have recovered and you respond:
“But what if I go even further?”
Obviously! What else were you going to ask? You’re a gym-bro, more of anything that is good is clearly better.
You then add:
“Is it possible that I could put more chicken on a sandwich and reduce my bread consumption even more? I’m talking purely in regard to theory here, of course.”
A quizzical look takes over your friend’s face, and he turns his head to the sky. After a few minutes his expression appears more concerned. He eventually turns to you, looking you dead in the eye in a solemn manner and nods.
“Yes… Purely from a theoretical standpoint. But it seems dangerous and untested. I warn you from trying this method yourself, it appears to be fraught with unprecedented risk!”
This news overwhelms you. To hell with risk. Chicken is life.
You quickly scurry away, promising your friend you won’t dare try to progress this any further.
After weeks of your own calculations and experiments, you work out that if you put 250 grams of chicken on a sandwich, you can reduce your bread consumption even more, down to a mere 2 sandwiches.
But you still think there is more progress to be made.
As months go by, you eventually work out that if you put 500 grams of chicken on a single sandwich, you only need to eat 2 slices of bread. This is potentially the single most important discovery in the entire field of sandwich theory.
But then you get an idea.
Because you have now reduced your bread consumption to such a significant extent, you have not only reduced your superfluous calorie intake, but actually reached a point where you need to add more calories back in.
You then have a startling idea: What if you add even more chicken into the sandwich to make up those calories?
This is your magnum opus.
Through sheer will, determination, sacrifice—and a little mathematics—you have not only worked out how to reduce your bread intake and still eat the same amount of protein, but how to eat even more protein than you were initially!
Your name will go down in history for your contributions to science.
Eating a more productive sandwich
Yeah ok, so I ended up telling a weird story again. I’m sorry.
The point I am making though goes like this…
Think of your entire day. That’s how much food you’re able to eat—and you want the vast majority of it to be “productive food,” such as chicken. The switching cost is the bread.
So each time you switch tasks, that is like shoving a slice of bread into your schedule. The less you do that, the more chicken you jam in between each slice of bread. This results in a better ratio of productivity ratio for your current tasks, but isn’t the end goal.
If you manage to reduce your switching significantly and get it to the point where you can have large chunks of time that allow you to get close to or fully reach your brain’s top-speed, then that is like being able to add even more chicken in than when you started.
You went from reducing the amount of bread and time wasting you needed to get through in order to eat enough chicken and get enough done, and you trimmed down the excess to such an extent you can do even more with less of the undesired effects.
At this point you haven’t just reduced the costs on your budget, you have reduced costs—which frees up more resources even on its own—acquired an even larger budget to work with! Now that’s a powerful swing.
That is the goal of time-chunking and limiting the distractions that can shatter that time into periods of insufficient duration to reach true top-speed.
In the supervisor story, one of the things that was slightly over idealised about it, is that I made both “tasks” productive, and only considered the time between them as unproductive.
A more realistic version for modern life would be to consider having one productive task and a second almost entirely unproductive task (which still required even more unproductive steps to engage with).
This might look something like:
1. Making progress on an assignment
2. Travel to Instagram
3. Update on what has occurred on Instagram since departure
4. Making “progress” on Instagram (messaging, finding desired content etc.)
5. Travel back to assignment
6. Update on what has occurred at assignment since departure (re-read and remember where you were up to).
7. Making progress on assignment again
At this rate, it will take a lot of time to make sufficient progress on that assignment, and even longer to complete all the other tasks that are piling up while you spend time on Instagram. It’s no wonder people feel stressed and like there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything.
Now to be clear, I’m not saying you shouldn’t spend any time on social media. It’s your time, you can do as you please.
All I am suggesting is that your social media use, if you go about it in a very ineffective and excessive manner, is likely causing you to be much less productive—and more stressed—than you realise.
Something to consider…