Getting Things Done - GTD

Cognitive Switching Is Killing Your Productivity

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
tags Focus Science
“Rule your mind or it will rule you.” ~ Horace

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Cognitive Switching Is Killing Your Productivity

In this blog we’ve talked on more than one occasion about how multitasking doesn’t work, since the brain is not neurologically prepared to work on several things at once. When you think you’re multitasking what it’s actually happening is that your brain is switching between tasks as fast as it can, and this can significantly jeopardize your effectiveness when doing them, as recent studies in the field of neurology show.

Every task you try to do at the same time is competing for your brain’s attention and acting as a distraction from each other. That’s why it’s not a good idea to talk on your phone while you’re driving, among many other things.

Every task you take on during the day requires a determined amount of attention, energy and focus.

When you start something, there is a cognitive switch in your brain from what you were doing before. To do the work, the brain needs to be familiar with the context of the action you’re about to perform, that is to say, to download into its “working memory” everything necessary for performance.

The time it takes to get familiarized with the new context varies according to the complexity of the task, but it can take really long (23 minutes on average according to this study). If you’re constantly moving your focus, you’re making your brain download over and over again different contexts, and that means a cost in time that, of course, reduces your daily productivity. You’ll do less tasks, and you’ll do them worse.

If you focus your attention in only one thing at a time, your brain will download the context into its working memory just once, and that allows you to concentrate all your energy on the task itself.

The cognitive switching penalty is one of the reasons the GTD methodology encourages the need of selecting your next action within the context you’re already working on. If you group all your next actions that have similarities you’ll avoid unnecessary cognitive switching, which will decrease cognitive stress and allow you to get better results with less effort.

Francisco Sáez

Francisco is the founder and CEO of FacileThings. He is also a Software Engineer who is passionate about personal productivity and the GTD philosophy as a means to a better life.

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