I want you to imagine this scenario: you’re relaxing on the couch, reading a mystery novel. You’re nearing the end; all the evidence has been laid out, the case is getting good and you can picture the scene perfectly. It’s totally engrossing – then suddenly, the phone rings. It’s a family member who has a complicated question. (Let’s say it’s about how to troubleshoot a recipe that’s going terribly wrong, and you’re a great cook.) The person explains the problem and you think it through before suggesting a fix. The conversation lasts 10 minutes, then you hang up and go back to the book.  

Ten minutes ago, you could practically hear the detective’s voice as he was arresting the prime suspect. But now you have to flip back a page to remember how he figured out that the butler did it. The story had been at the front of your mind until you had to switch gears and think about how to solve your relative’s problem. Your brain had to go searching for the details about the book and its plot in order to pick up where you left off. 

The same thing happens when we move between work tasks, doesn’t it? Switching activities takes mental energy. And switching activities without finishing them is a pretty common practice for people who are rushing and overwhelmed.  

 Maybe you’re focused on finishing a project when you suddenly remember an email that you have to answer. If you don’t answer it right now you might forget to do it, so you put the project aside and dive into the email. Then you go back to the project, but it takes a few minutes to get back in the groove and remember where you left off. 

 I would bet that most of you have experienced this phenomenon. It’s not just you! Researchers have studied multitasking and have (unsurprisingly) found that task switching has real productivity costs. A well-known 1995 study (done by Robert Rogers, PhD and Stephen Monsell, D.Phil) showed that moving between two tasks slowed subjects’ productivity, even when they could predict exactly when they were going to make the switch. Another researcher, David Meyer, PhD, estimates that switching between tasks takes up as much as 40 percent of your productive time.  

 Yikes! Imagine how much you could get done in that time, if your brain wasn’t working so hard to play catch-up. So by now you can see why task switching can be such a problem. (Those of you who attended my most recent webinar might remember hearing me talking about the energy cost of moving from one activity to the next.)  

 That’s why enabling your routine and environment to support productivity is one of my most important time management tips. If you need to focus on finishing that project, clear your workspace of everything but the materials you need for this one task. Set up your physical environment in a way that supports you in accomplishing one thing at a time so it’s not so easy to bounce between things. 

 This strategy isn’t just about work stuff! When you’re at home with family or spending time with friends, I want you to put work things away so you’re not switching back and forth between Work Mode and Life Mode. 

 I have so many more time management tips to share with you, and I’m going to be doing exactly that during an intensive course later this fall! During my three-day Time Matters Boot Camp LIVE!, I’ll be coaching a small group of motivated entrepreneurs and professionals to not only learn my time management tips but to put them into practice. If you’re stressed, overwhelmed, frustrated and ready for change, I would love to see you! Join us outside of Boston from November 29th through December 1st! Register by October 5th before the the Super Early Bird Discount Expires and save big!  

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Sarah Reiff-Hekking