Context Switching Destroys Productivity
Wearing all the hats does not make you a better worker
Since quitting my day job I have noticed how much context switching we do throughout the day. Some of us probably switch hour to hour or even minute to minute. In my previous role as Head of Product, I led all company initiatives around our product. I also lead the design team and for a long time, the QA team. Just writing that out sounded crazy, but let's forget about the other two roles and just focus on product. As Head of Product I shaped the overall company product, but I also handled small case by case or customer to customer product decisions. I had to do research, build lots of data sets, provide estimates, mock up ideas, converse with new and existing customers, and even help close sales leads when needed. All of these things inevitably made me quit as there was too much going on at any given time and I was beyond burnt out. Now that I am out of the muck of it and I am making my own schedule while focusing on my goals, I see how broken that system is. It is not limited to me, everyone goes through this to some extent.
After the Industrial Revolution, when the knowledge worker started sprouting up, we just kept the same structure but slotted in a different skill set. In theory, this would be perfect when it comes to context switching because industrial workers mainly do the same task all day long, becoming more proficient and faster over time. Putting a knowledge worker here seems like the right thing to do, as they will become a master of their trade and more efficient. But as the century turned and technology became democratized, we started to add more tasks to our plate. This changed the dichotomy for knowledge workers. Instead of doing their one task, they were given a handful. One hundred years later, this has not lessened.
Now, we are expected to do so many different tasks that we only spend a small amount of time focusing on our real job. This not only prevents us from doing our job efficiently and timely, but also prevents us from becoming the masters we are supposed to be. As this compiles over time we become frustrated, burnt out, and at times so mentally drained that we could even lose our jobs because of it.
A lot of knowledge workers are salaried, not all, but a lot. This means that if they are being pulled in 5-10 different directions but they still have deliverables to accomplish, they will likely need to work more but not get compensated for it. If they do not work more, they will likely have to lessen their load or miss deadlines. To further exacerbate this issue here – if you happen to be very driven and take your work personally, missing these deadlines can really affect you.
Since being intentionally jobless over the past month, I have been reminded of the power of focusing on a craft or even just a task. I have been doing two things – editing my documentary series like crazy and doing administrative tasks associated with it. Sure, I have done some other things like a one off job interview or learned something to stimulate my mind, but I never have to context switch. This means when I am editing, that is all I am doing. If I am doing admin work or writing this letter, that is it, just that. Previously, I was pulled into a Slack thread, a Basecamp message, or a “one off” meeting. I would start some research or open Figma for a wireframe session, just to be thwarted by a random sales call I needed to be on. All of that context switching meant I never actually did anything, or so it felt. Now, I feel accomplished daily. If I make strides or steps on the documentary, I know that they were intentional and thoughtful rather than scatterbrained and forced.
This is the kind of work I hope to keep doing. I am not talking about filmmaking, though I wouldn’t mind that either. I mean focused work, like real focus. Not setting a focus block on my calendar, ignoring the world, doing the work, then reaping the aftermath because I wasn’t readily available. I know that a lot of you go through the same issue and it is not ok. I am not telling you to quit your job, most people don’t have that luxury. I am just asking you to step back and look at your days. Are they a context switching nightmare? Are they attributing to your stress or burnout? Can you do anything about it? Are you an individual contributor or a manager? Do you run the company or freelance for yourself? There is likely something you can do or at least try. As knowledge workers we don’t have to do everything, we don’t need to wear all the hats. Even if you like to wear them all, switching every few minutes or hours does not allow for you to do your best work – don’t fool yourself. I used to think I could too, but now that I see what my best work is, that was a lie.