The Mental Penalties of Context Switching
Understanding and alleviating extra cognitive load on your brain
A context switching penalty is the additional cognitive load that a person’s brain needs to process when switching from one topic or context to another.
The simplest example of a context switch is reacting to an email notification when reading a document. To close the notification, let along open the email, causes a momentary lapse in concentration. The penalty is the effort required to find your place and remember what you’ve already read.
This may seem like a minor distraction. But if this happens, say, ten times in ten minutes of reading, there is a good chance you won’t remember much and will have to start again.
The punchline is that context switching penalties and decision-making quality are inversely proportionate. In other words, the higher the penalty, the lower a person’s decision-making quality.
This has been a big issue for me in the past. I suspect it’s also the case for founders and leaders in general. And not having enough time to reflect is usually a good indicator that context switching penalties are starting to take their toll.
Here are my thoughts, and I hope they’re helpful.
I think two factors make context switching penalties very problematic for founders.
First, they compound.
In the email notification example, the reader might be able to recover their concentration after receiving one notification. But it’s different after ten notifications in ten minutes. Those ten minutes of effort are essentially rendered useless because of the compounding effect of the penalties.
Second, not all penalties are created equal.
On any given day, I have scheduled meetings to talk about science, technology, marketing, hiring, and financing. I also have side-bar conversations and decisions to make on the same and different topics.
While I relish the diversity, the meeting duration, topic familiarity and the speed at which I need to switch between subjects add to the size of the penalty.
Here’s an example.
I finish a 30-minute meeting about customer acquisition. I am familiar and confident with this topic. Then, immediately after this meeting concludes, I walk into a 90-minute science meeting to discuss a particular type of genetic testing.
While I have a good understanding of genetic testing, it’s not as complete as my knowledge of customer acquisition. The effort required to comprehend and make decisions about which genetic testing platform we should proceed with compared with how to structure a customer acquisition campaign is higher.
Let’s also imagine that I have back-to-back meetings for the rest of that day.
All about different topics. All different durations. Most of them seeking a decision from me.
These penalties compound with calls and email and social media notifications. And as the day goes on, the context switching penalties start to mount.
Of course, there are some basic rules to lessen this load. Switch off social notifications and messaging services and focus on the meetings.
That is an option, but it doesn’t solve the broader meeting and decision-making barrages that founders face most days.
I spoke with my good friend Melissa Rosenthal about this earlier this week.
We concluded that context switching penalties are the byproduct of an interesting algorithm with five inputs:
- Topic comfort level: the familiarity or confidence level with the subject matter
- Meeting duration: the length of time needed to comprehend and learn or contribute to a subject
- Time to switch between topics: the time between meetings
- Need to make decisions
- Number of meetings per day
The weighting of each factor can change each day.
The most extreme version of this algorithm are days filled with:
- Long meetings or workshops that are back to back
- Little or no breaks between sessions
- Low topic familiarity
- High need for decision making
I’ve found that the volume of meetings can ebb and flow depending on the stage of the company.
Instead of blindly accepting meetings into my calendar (and I understand that sometimes there is little choice in the matter), I have come to rely on tactics that circuit-break the potential for context switching penalties to accumulate.
In addition to removing notification distractions that will inflate content switching penalties, I use these tactics:
To help with the topic comfort level, mainly if I’m not familiar with it, I ask for links or documents that I can read beforehand to come up the curve. I also find it helpful to come armed with two or three questions that I can ask during that conversation (instead of just being a passive participant in the meeting).
To help with meeting duration, I limit one-hour sessions to 45 minutes. If a workshop runs for three hours, I find a way to build in reflection time. This allows me time to make notes about my reflections and clarify my actions.
To help with the time to switch between topics and contexts, I ask that my team respects my time and the time of other participants. Often people booking meetings aren’t aware of conflicting or tight schedules. Sharing this with them goes a long way.
To help with the need to make decisions, I ask what we’re trying to answer in each meeting. This helps focus the person who called the meeting and often reduces the meeting duration because you can get to the nub of the issue more quickly.
To help with the number of sessions per day, I block out 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. each day for thinking and doing time. This time is off limits to everyone.
One Last Thing …
It might be the first time you’ve heard about context switching penalties. The tactics to resolve the compounding effect of the penalties might seem straightforward. But if you’re thinking, like I have in the past, that it doesn’t seem like you have enough time to think and reflect, there is a good chance context switch penalties are playing a significant role in your day.
I’ve found that reducing distractions is a good starting point, but it’s not enough. The tactics to reduce compound switching penalties have helped a lot, as has regular exercise and maintaining a proper diet.
The last tip to close out this topic is to give yourself time to catch up. That could mean working from home one day a month or using work travel as a way to clear your head.
As founders, our rate of learning is limited by our decision-making quality. I’ve found that reducing context switching penalties improves decision making-quality, and I hope you find the same.