When you’re transitioning from one task to another, you’re at risk of falling off the tracks. If you understand the factors at play, you can design task transitions that will keep you productive and focused.
I first noticed the importance of task transitions when I changed a writing habit.
I had a habit of writing a 500-word article each morning, and then I changed that habit to write a 100-word article each morning.
Counterintuitively, I found it much harder to transition to a new task after finishing my 100-word article than I did after finishing my 500-word article.
How could I design my tasks, and the transitions between those tasks, to keep my work sessions productive? I set out to understand task transitions.
Here are some of the mechanisms that determine how well a task transition will perform:
- How well-defined is the task to which you are transitioning?
- What level of self-discipline do you have in this moment?
- How much momentum do you have?
- To what degree do the activities you perform when transitioning distract you?
Let’s examine those factors one by one.
How well-defined is the task to which you are transitioning? If I just finished writing an article, and I’m looking for what to do next, is that next task well-defined?
If I already have a task defined on a todo list, the work is well-defined. If I’m just leaving it up to how I feel to decide what to do next, the work is poorly-defined.
When you have to define a task during your transition, you have to switch mental states. I have found there to be seven mental states to creative productivity. If I finish a task, for example writing an article, and then have to figure out what to do next, I have to switch from a Generate mental state to a Prioritize mental state.
Switching mental states at all takes up some mental energy, so it puts you at risk of losing focus before you can get into your next task.
The Prioritize mental state is the most mentally-taxing mental state of them all. So merely deciding what to do next carries additional mental costs.
The more mental energy you expend transitioning to your next task, the harder time you’ll have getting started on that next task.
What level of self-discipline do you have in this moment? Your ability to transition to a new task will depend upon your level of self-discipline in the moment. In some ways, self-discipline is a myth—I’m defining it here as simply having enough mental energy to suppress what urges you might have to do something else.
When I finished my 100-word habit, my self-discipline wasn’t strong when it came time to transition to my next task. I had eroded my self-discipline by conditioning myself to expect a reward.
This is where, if you’re not careful, BJ Fogg’s tiny habit principles can backfire. When you perform a habit, it’s a good idea to celebrate. Celebrating in some way helps you associate that habit with a good feeling. That increases the chances that you’ll perform the habit the next day.
If I had started with a 100-word habit, maybe I would have found a better way to transition to a new task. I could have transitioned to an hour of work on a front-burner creative project, for example.
But, I switched to a 100-word habit after several months of having a 500-word habit, so I had conditioned myself to behave differently.
My mind had this scheme of behavior programmed into it:
Perform writing habit > get reward > do next thing.
This worked out fine at 500 words. I needed a break after such a long task anyway. But at 100 words, the “reward” reduced my self-discipline. This was exacerbated by the fact that I had conditioned myself to expect the kind of reward I would get from writing 500 words, when I was in fact only writing 100 words.
How much momentum do you have? You’ll have an easier time moving onto the next task if you have momentum.
When I spent an hour and a half writing 500 words, I built up momentum. I got into the writing “groove”, and I had even practiced suppressing urges throughout my writing session.
But when I spent ten minutes writing 100 words, I didn’t build up momentum. I hadn’t gotten into the “groove”, and I hadn’t practiced much urge suppression.
Notice that there’s a big difference between my ten-minute hack, wherein I would set a timer for ten minutes to get started writing, and my 100-word article habit.
The difference between these two ten-minute exercises lies in momentum. If I’m writing a 100-word article, by the time I’m done, I don’t have much momentum. The completion of the article has countered my momentum with an expectation of reward.
But when I’m doing a ten-minute hack, my aim is to build momentum toward writing for a longer period of time. Task completion lies much further ahead, so completion bias doesn’t stunt my momentum.
To what degree do the activities you perform when transitioning distract you? What you choose to do between one task and the next task will affect how well you transition to that next task.
When I was writing a 500-word article each morning, it was fine if I checked Twitter for a second afterward. I had enough momentum going that I wanted to get back to work and do my next task, more than I wanted to spend a lot of time on social media.
But when I finished a 100-word article, checking Twitter would then spiral into checking Facebook, checking podcast download stats, and—worst of all—checking email.
My “break” would take me completely off the rails, sometimes ruining the most productive hours of my day. Getting my day off to a bad start would sometimes affect the entire rest of my day.
The break activities you choose need to be matched with how well-defined your next task is, the level of self-discipline you have in the moment, and the amount of momentum you have.
If all of these factors are high, a social media break might be okay. If they are low, checking social media puts the rest of your day at risk.
The next time you complete a task, and transition to the next, notice these factors at work. Is it clear what to do next? How have your previous activities affected your willpower? Do you have momentum you can put toward the next task? What are you doing between the two tasks, and how does that activity affect your ability to transition to the next task?
If you think deliberately about task transitions, and design your tasks, and the spaces between them, to make those transitions smooth, you’ll be well on your way to a state of perpetual creative productivity.
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