If you’re interested in productivity, then you’ve probably heard the term context shifting. It is much-used in the workplace productivity universe. Context shifting is the process of shifting your attention from one task to another. It emerged most strongly as applied to the rise in multi-tasking with the advent of mobile phones. Everyone does it. For example, you may be on the phone with someone, but also checking your email, and reading an incoming text message. The term “multi-tasking” emerged because of the tacit belief that when we are truly doing these three tasks simultaneously. How awesomely efficient, right?
It turns out that your brain is not working on these different tasks simultaneously. Instead, it’s switching between activities. One moment the brain is listening to your mom on the phone, but when the text alert comes in the brain switches contexts –and now, you’re reading the text. In that moment that your brain focuses onto the text message, it has stopped focusing on your mom’s story. There is no actual multi-tasking –instead, there is prolific stopping, context-shifting and re-starting on a new task – potentially over and over during a single phone call.
Of course, we also context-shift in the normal course of life and work. Any segue from one task to another involves a shift in the context. It is that critical form of context-shifting that I am most interested in exploring in this article.
Heavy-Lifting for The Brain
All switching of focus requires cognitive energy. The executive function of our brains must engage in invisible background work for us to understand and engage with a new task. That process requires time, creating a gap between our impulse to shift focus, and our actual focusing on the new task. It’s sort of like the buffering that a video does when your wi-fi connection isn’t fast enough to load the full file all at once.
Changing focus seems to have two sequential processes that happen within milliseconds. First, the brain recognizes that the task has shifted, and that means the brain must now orient itself around a new goal.
Next, having adjusted to this new goal, the brain must determine the rules and heuristics that govern this new activity.
These are complex activities. Therefore, they use actual time to execute. Those milliseconds can add up to as much as 40% of your productivity over the course of a working day. That’s huge.
Everything Takes Time
Given the time it takes to switch contexts, one important consideration arises. If we are committed to getting focused on each task we attempt, how can we accelerate the time it takes to do that?
The state of focused deep work has been described as a “state of flow”. The concept of “flow” was first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 2008. It is a state of optimal experience when you find yourself so utterly focused on the task at hand, that everything else fades away from your consciousness.
You may be doing something complex like playing a game of chess, or something simple like cleaning the dishes –but you are cognitively all in. To do excellent work, it is incredibly useful to be able to bring yourself into that state of focus as quickly and effectively as possible. It is the moment when you have 100% of your attention on the task at hand, whether that’s writing code, developing a strategy, or discussing a new process with a colleague. Flow is the desired state. As a bonus, it’s also rather euphoric.
Your Own Pace
In my work with executives of high-growth startups, I have observed a massive range in how fast people can shift contexts and get focused. Some people seem able to do it instantaneously. But others need a good 30 or 40 minutes to really settle into a task.
There is data about this. On average, it takes most people about 15 minutes to get into a state of flow.
That assumes you are not still attempting to multitask by leaving on Slack, text messages, or other alerts. But, once you’ve turned the ringer off your phone and the alerts off on your laptop, and are truly concentrating on something, it will still take approximately fifteen minutes to tune out other mental distractions and enter a state of flow.
Some people struggle with it. For them, it’s harder to clear their minds and bring their attention to the very narrow view of the task at hand. They are plagued by thoughts about other demands on their time, items they may forget, or concerns that they are neglecting someone or something. Those distracting concerns interrupt the process of getting into a state of flow.
What Determines Your Ability to Focus?
There are a few things that affect one’s innate ability to focus, some we can control and some we cannot. One of the factors out of our control is our age. Young people are inherently better at context shifting than older people. But, like all generalizations, this may not be true for any given individual. There are young people who struggle mightily to get focused, and older people who can zoom in on a task instantaneously. But, in general, our context shifting speed diminishes as we age.
But there is much that we can control.
Regardless of our age, we can improve our ability to focus by practicing.
One important tactic is to embrace time blocking. That is, scheduling specific periods of time to work on pre-determined tasks. By doing that, you reduce the need to shift context based on unexpected stimulus (like a colleague’s Slack message). Knowing in advance what you will next work on assists the brain’s executive function to prepare.
Another thing that makes it easier to switch contexts and get into flow more rapidly, is lumping similar tasks together.
Bear in mind, the executive functions that govern context-shifting are twofold: Determining what the next goal is; and determining the tools and heuristics that apply to the next goal. When the tasks are similar to each other, both of those processes are faster.
Helping Your Brain Locate the tools
To understand this, think of your brain like a library. In step one, the brain adjusts to a new goal. If you can find two tasks where the goals are akin to each other, it’s a bit like searching for two books that are on adjacent shelves in the library. Whereas if you’re doing tasks that are wildly divergent from each other, one book might be in on the ground floor while the other is in the basement or stored away in the stacks, covered with dust.
In step two a similar phenomenon applies. In determining the heuristics and rules that govern a new task, your brain must look for the applicable mental models. That sorting is more direct and efficient if the tasks are similar rather than very different.
All Executive Functions Are Work
It all takes more cognitive energy. So, what does this mean for you? You can practice context shifting and focusing, and like most things, practice will lead to improvement. The more you put yourself into that state of flow, the more frequently you work deeply on a task, the better at it you become. The difficulty so many of us face in being able to get deeply focused on a single task is not a form of idleness or laziness. Instead, it’s lack of the important practice that can improve our fluency at shifting contexts.
A Primer on Focusing
If you’re reading this, the odds are your work requires thinking deeply, reading with real focus to understand and retain knowledge – all to produce outstanding quality work. The key to it all resides in effectively switching contexts and deeply focusing on the next task. The playbook is simple:
- Determine your current time to get into focus. Are you a one-minute or a 40-minute context shifter?
- Start time blocking, scheduling durations of time in your calendar for specific tasks.
- Try to schedule blocks of similar tasks consecutively, reducing the degree of change in context.
- Ensure that you provide enough duration in your time blocking for you to get into a state of flow. If you need forty minutes to focus, don’t schedule any task for less than 90 minutes.
You already have a sense of whether it takes you two minutes or thirty minutes to settle into a state of flow. Don’t judge whatever that number is or feel bad or embarrassed. These are learnable skills. You can become more efficient by practicing these tools and techniques. Becoming better at relaxing into your work will give you a sense of certainty about what you will accomplish and when. And with that comes the euphoria of being engrossed in the work it takes to fulfill your goals.