Our series on reducing mental effort continues.
Minimize context switching
During a normal workday, it’s easy to begin new tasks without fully finishing previous tasks. Sometimes we do this for the sake of variety, but this can be a very inefficient approach.
Each time you switch contexts, your mind has to release the previous context and load in a new context. Think of a context as all of the key ideas that link with the task at hand.
It often takes 15-30 minutes to load in a new context well enough to feel like you’re in the flow of good productivity. Before you’ve loaded the relevant context, a new task tends to feel a bit alien or complicated, so you can’t work as fast. It’s like learning the contents of someone else’s kitchen when you’re staying in a new AirBnB. It takes a while to figure out where everything is. Once you’ve fully loaded in the new context though, you can work a lot faster.
For this reason it’s wise to fully finish one type of task or project – or at least drive it as far as you can – before switching contexts.
You have to balance this with your fatigue levels though because working in the same context for too many hours in a row may eventually lead to diminishing returns due to tiredness.
So while it would likely be inefficient to work on 8 different types of projects in a day due to excessive context switching, it may also be suboptimal to only work on one project all day long due to fatigue (unless that project has some decent variety, like creating a bunch of different web pages for a website). Working on 2-3 different projects may be closer to ideal. Then you’re only switching contexts a few times, and you’re switching before the fatigue of doing one type of work becomes a limiting factor.
I suggest experimenting to see how much context switching during a day is best for you. I usually work very productively with about 2-3 contexts per day, usually not more than 4. And sometimes I can be very productive working in just a single context, but then fatigue does tend to be higher at the end of the day – it feels like I’ve burnt out some circuits by overloading them a bit.
Even when you feel fatigued or burnt out doing one type of work, you may find that you still feel pretty fresh when switching to a different type of task afterwards.
Drive small projects to full completion
This suggestion is related to the above as well as to the section on solving problems fully from yesterday’s post.
To minimize context switching further, it’s often wise to drive a small project all the way across the finish line when you have its context fully loaded.
In other words, once you’ve made the effort to load the context for a project, don’t unload that context till you’re 100% done with it.
A bathroom break is fine, but try to avoid a longer break such as for a meal (unless it’s just a quick 5-minute snack).
When writing blog posts, for instance, I usually try to go from idea to publication of a new article without taking lengthy breaks in the middle. I develop the idea and do the writing, editing, and publishing in a single stretch of continuous work time, even if it’s a pretty long article. If it’s 4000+ words, I may have to break it up into multiple sessions, but I always try to at least finish a context-dependent chunk in a single stretch. For a long piece, I’ll still try to write the whole piece in one session, and then after a meal break, I may do the editing pass and then publish it. I hardly ever work on a single article across multiple days.
So the idea here is to avoid having to load the same context more than once. Whenever you take a longer break from a task or project, especially if it’s overnight or over a weekend, you have to do extra work to reload the context to get back into a productive flow. So if you can possibly drive a project to full completion with a single loading of the context for it, do your best to make that happen. It can save you a lot of mental energy – and time.
We’ll continue with Part 6 of this series tomorrow.
Receive Steve's new articles by email.