People working in an open floor plan office

The Cost of Context Switching

During a recent workshop with the awesome Rich Mironov (author of The Art of Product Management), Rich had everyone at the workshop do a simple and quick exercise that clearly shows the cost of context switching.

It is amazing, but there are still people who believe they can do it all by multitasking, even though multiple studies show this is not the case. Humans simply do not multitask well.

I knew a designer that complained about a developer who focused on tasks in a linear order. The designer wanted the developer to multitask. The problem is that constantly context switching as the designer wanted would have slowed the developer down, but seeing smaller bits of progress across a portfolio of tasks gave the designer a sense that more work was being accomplished.

Unfortunately, the designer had it wrong. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell even goes so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” Worse, our work days are now a constant stream of interruption, and it takes the brain about 10 to 15 minutes to recover from interruptions. That is a lot of lost productivity. This one reason why some believe open floor plans are detrimental to productivity.

Don’t believe it? Think you can truly multitask? Take the challenge and find out.

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