The Art of Context Switching

The Art of Context Switching

In our previous article, we talked about the costs of context switching, and how to generally prevent context switching.

However, product managers don’t usually have the luxury of working with uninterrupted time, specifically because we have so many responsibilities and fill up the white space.

So, I’d like to talk you through how to context switch better, since so much of our time and output is consumed by context switching.

How to Context Switch Effectively

Nearly every product manager struggles with context switching during working hours. Therefore, some product managers have resorted to working early mornings, late nights, or weekends to try to get uninterrupted time for focused work.

While that tactic can work in the short run, it’s unsustainable in the long run.

As part of work life balance, we shouldn’t teach our organizations to expect that we’ll regularly start earlier or end later than our other colleagues, nor should we teach them to rely on us working on weekends.

On top of that, many effective product managers are also parents or caretakers, making early mornings, late nights, and weekends impossible.

So let’s constrain ourselves to standard working hours. How might we be able to optimize for those small 15-minute or 30-minute blocks between meetings?

Some might argue that it’s not possible to optimize for such small chunks of time, especially since research demonstrates that switching between tasks takes an average of 25 minutes to become productive again.

However, based on my personal experience, I strongly believe that context switching is a skill that can be learned and honed through mindful practice.

Note that context switching isn’t something that we automatically get better at. You have to mindfully practice how to context switch to actually get better at it.

Here are three best practices that I’ve found to be effective for dealing with context switching:

  1. Focus on one task
  2. Dive in
  3. Run retrospectives

By doing so, I’ve measurably reduced my context switching time down to 15 seconds between tasks.

That’s a huge time savings - whenever I need to switch contexts, I can still use small blocks of time effectively.

Let’s walk through each best practice.

Focus

To context switch effectively, you need to focus. Don’t give yourself the option of selecting what you want to do. Know exactly what you’re going to do next, and then do it.

If you have a clear set of priorities, then you know exactly what’s up next. If you spend time deciding on what to do next, you’re cycling through lots of different contexts, which is hugely expensive.

You only get to have one thing to do. If you’re busy multitasking, you’re going to fail, especially when you have such a short period of time to work with.

Of course, no one is perfect at focusing. I’ve found that every time I juggle two conversations or two tasks at once, I lose about 60-80% effectiveness, and I feel stressed out for the next 2 hours from the experience.

I have to keep reminding myself that tackling one thing at a time with focus is better than trying to please everyone simultaneously - because when I try to please everyone, I wind up pleasing no one instead!

Dive In

Treat your time as uninterrupted, even if you know you’ll be interrupted.

What does this mean? I’ve found that many people believe that short blocks of time are automatically “dead space,” when in reality those short blocks of time can still be used productively.

Too many times, I’ve heard friends and peers say something along the lines of “since I have only 10 minutes until my next meeting, I shouldn’t dive into my next task.”

I disagree with that mindset. Time is time.

If you know that you need to take 2 minutes to get to your meeting, you still have 8 minutes of work available to you. Those 8 minutes can quickly add up throughout the day.

Say, for example, that a typical product manager has 6 meetings per day, which means they have 5 blocks of “dead time.” (Side note: yes, many product managers have that many meetings every day!)

If you can use those 5 blocks effectively, you free up an extra 8 x 5 = 40 minutes per day, which adds up to more than 3 hours per week! As a reminder, your typical work week is 40 hours long, so 3 hours is significant.

Whenever I’m between meetings, I like to pretend that I have a full hour ahead. After all, whatever I finish now will continue to stay finished.

I’ve knocked out entire specs solely by using multiple 15 minute blocks of time, because I pretended like I didn’t have upcoming meetings to interrupt me.

Similarly, I’ve pulled together impactful product insights through data analytics while waiting for my next meeting to start.

Run Retrospectives

If you want to get truly good at context switching, you need to actively monitor your performance so that you can improve the way you work.

Where are you being distracted? How can you ensure that you continue to tackle your task with singular focus?

At the end of each day, run mini retros on each context switch that you experienced. How long did it take for you to switch topics? How could you switch topics faster? What do you need to do to compartmentalize time better?

I strongly believe that you should conduct this mini retro on a daily basis, because I usually forget the context of any context switching by the end of the week.

It doesn’t need to be a formal retrospective - just a quick reflection and a short note somewhere will help increase your productivity over time.

For example, one of my retrospective notes was “do not keep Slack open while context switching”, because I found that Slack ate up all of my free time between meetings.

Another one of my retrospective notes mentioned “breathe deeply to reduce stress”, so that I could singularly focus on the task ahead.

Similarly, another retrospective note to myself said “investing 1 minute to reset your focus is more valuable than using 15 minutes in a distracted way.”

An effective product manager builds not just good products, but also good processes. By being self-aware, you’re building yourself into a better product manager, as well as building yourself into a better product.

Summary

Remember, the best thing you can do is to prevent context switching in the first place, because context switching is incredibly expensive.

But, in the case that you do need to context switch, you still have ways to optimize your output.

Ensure that you’re only tackling one item at any given time. When tackling it, dive deep and pretend nothing else exists. At the end of each day, run retrospectives on yourself in a loving but honest way, and identify how to continue improving your ability to manage your time.

I’ve found that by practicing the art of context switching, I’ve gotten more productive and more resilient to sudden changes. It’s a lifelong skill that will prove handy no matter where you go!

 


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