Understanding Switching Costs — Mental Gymnastics

Michael Fisher
4 min readSep 20, 2018


Manual central switchboard 1900 — Britannica

Back in the olden days, the late 1980's and early 1990’s — days of the 80286, 80386, and 80486 Intel processor chip series, there was concern over switch costs, which was the identification of chip latency and overall utilization based on the number switches and their frequency. Effectively a reduced capability due to the “cost” of switching tasks in a multithreaded environment. However switching costs are in today’s vernacular when it relates to investments of time and money; such as changing suppliers, changing brands, or even changing products. There is a physical and psychological investment in developing those original supply bases, in that it costs effort, both mentally and physically, to change brands. For example, you wish to change banks. Think of the switches, the changes you have to make from all the accounts you have. Deposits, automatic payments, checks, debit cards, all the changes that have to take place. The amount of time and effort you have to invest in doing that chore is mind-numbing. It is also stressful to manage all those activities. Did you miss one? Better go back and check! Yet, those efforts have a cost like the CPU examples above. You could be doing something else, more educational, more beneficial, more entertaining, but you have to switch to do those chores.

However, the switching costs we fight daily is a combination of both. The brain is like a computer, and we have a mental task of switching tasks when we are “multitasking.” Additionally, the psychological mental switching costs that occur throughout the day are heavily impacted in our use of the internet, social media, electronic devices, computers and the rapid-fire conversations we have interrupting us throughout our workplace and homelife daily. Seconds, minutes, and hours slip by.

“silhouette photo of lightning” by Kiahna Mollette on Unsplash

Switching costs are the cost of lost time when you mentally transition from one topic to another. These topics can be related, but they are typically unrelated to one another. A personal example of this occurred when helping my daughter study for her spelling test while I was also checking her math at the same time. My brain was doing cartwheels and handsprings when I would transition from one subject to the next, taking a couple of mental stutters before I could register what my mental intent was as I moved between topics. I would deliver her spelling word, use it in a sentence and switch to her math and begin doing the calculations while she was writing her words down. While I was doing the calculation checks, she would be ready to audibly spell the word back to me to check. If I did not stop the calculation checks, I was unable to concentrate on the word as it was spelled back to me, forcing her to repeat it (with an exasperated sigh I might add).

When I was working on the math in my mind and was required to transition to the other sheet of paper of the spelling words, my eyes were searching for the last word she finished and it would take a few seconds for me to register what was the next task in line. The same would occur when moving from spelling words back to the math. I would lose my place in the calculation sequence and need to return to the beginning of the equation. This multitasking, these switching costs, were causing us to take longer and be significantly inefficient in her studies.

The same switching cost affects you in your work every day the moment you pick up your phone, the moment you move from one program to the other, from a document to a spreadsheet to a CAD screen. Or the moments you lose while working and the email window or IM window pops up, distracting your eyes from your actions, or you see an interesting internet story and someone comes to discuss something with you. Your mind is not in tune with the actions happening when you switch mentally to these occurrences. You lose track of the conversation — pretend listening — and are unable to grasp what the topic that is immediately at hand. Your brain has to switch, re-align with the topics that you are presented with, and in that time one, two, three seconds are lost every time you do a switching cost. Every time you switch or transition. Every time you multitask.

Think of how many times you check your email daily.

How many times do you check your phone for new messages? Or new posts?

How many times do you return to your computer screen and see that you have 14 various windows open and have to close out all of them to get back to a point where you can begin processing information again?

Stop doing that.

Focus on the work immediately on hand. Have the discipline to stay working on that ONE action. Have the ability to say “please come back later or schedule some time when we can both focus and talk.” Turn off your reminders. Turn off your alerts. Focus and stop wasting time and energy throughout your day. Be more effective. Be more efficient.

Go forth and be brilliant!



Michael Fisher

altMBA alumnus. In and around manufacturing and business for more than 25 years in different levels of leadership. Always trying to poke at the status quo.