Work Interrupted: Context Switching Is A Mind Killerby@roxanamurariu
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Work Interrupted: Context Switching Is A Mind Killer

by Roxana MurariuJuly 14th, 2021
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In computing, multitasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple tasks, processes, or applications. There are three categories of how people multitask: Engage in two activities simultaneously (e.g. talking on the phone while driving or walking, answering emails during a meeting, etc.) Switching between various contexts requires time to adjust to a task’s requirements. Unconscious internal context switching is when we switch from a work-related task to a distraction task, craving distraction or novelty.

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I cannot always multitask. 

Constant context switching is the mind-killer. 

Craving distractions is the little-death that brings total obliteration. 

I will face my interruptions. 

I will permit them to pass over me and through me. 

And when they have gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see their path. 

Where the shallow tasks have gone, there will be nothing. Only my attention will remain. 

Litany of multitasking adapted from 

In computing, multitasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple tasks, processes, or applications. Context switching is another computing term describing how multitasking operation systems run numerous applications: when switching between applications, the computer stores the state of that application, putting it on hold until we come back to it. These computing terms are examples of how software metaphors jump from the digital world to our analogue, concrete world to describe new concepts. 

According to the American Psychological Association, there are three categories of how people multitask:  

  1. Engage in two activities simultaneously (e.g. talking on the phone while driving or walking, answering emails during a meeting, etc.) 
  2. Complete two or more tasks very quickly, one after another.
  3. Switch from one task to another task without completing either task. These tasks might be related (task-switching) or unrelated, various tasks in different contexts (context-switching).

Context switching is the most distracting form of multitasking, as the other forms of multitasking involve two or more related tasks. Perpetually switching between various contexts requires time to get into a particular mindset to adjust to a task’s requirements.

Let’s say you are writing a report and something interrupts you, a colleague, a phone call, a notification. The interruption could not be longer than a mere minute, and yet, when you get back to the report, a part of your attention still lingers on the interruption. This is called attention residue

Sophie LeRoy, a researcher from the University of Minnesota, says, people experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task. The thicker the residue, the worse the performance. 

She says in a 2009 paper that “people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another.” 

Although switch costs may look relatively small, e.g. seconds or minutes, these costs can add to a vast amount of time when we are constantly multitasking. It might look more productive to multitask, but the actual price is that all tasks take more time to complete, and work efficiency takes a loss. As a result, we are getting overwhelmed and struggling to process information. 

I believe that context switching can be further categorized.

External context switching is caused by external factors, such as colleagues dropping by, ad-hoc meetings, emergency calls, etc.

Unconscious internal context switching is when we switch from a work-related task to a distraction task, craving distraction or novelty. Psychologist B.F. Skinner discovered in the 1950s the effects of intermittent rewards using his pigeons. He rewarded the birds with food every time they pecked at a particular spot. Skinner found that the pigeons took the food for granted and pecked only when hungry. If he rarely gave rewards, the pigeons lost interest. BUT, if he gave random, unpredictable rewards, pigeons would peck eagerly. This effect is known as conditional reinforcement. 

Conditional reinforcement explains the wild appeal of slot machines or our digital tools. Digital applications are designed in such a way so we eagerly peck check on notifications, emails, photos, news to crave a permanent connection and induce a fear of missing out (FOMO). Unconsciously, we train ourselves to self-interrupt because we know we might streak gold randomly and find a meaningful email, a great article, a fascinating insight.

Conscious internal context switching is used in problem-solving when we consciously decide to switch between focused and diffuse modes. Like I said in another article, the best way to create epiphanies is to work hard, research, think about a task (focused mode), and then, like Elsa, let it go (diffuse mode). Take a break, do something else that relaxes you, sleep. Going back and forth between focused and diffuse modes is a much better strategy to learn new concepts and create aha! moments. This approach explains why we have our Eureka ideas in the shower while the mind is distracted.

Not all interruptions are equal, as contexts matter. For example, you might handle a phone call while at home, but 30 seconds of distraction is a matter of life and death while driving a car. The research found that driving using cell phones – even with hands-free phones – has a similar level of high-risk accidents as driving while drunk does.

Even similar tasks are exhausting because similar tasks try to use the same part of the brain, resulting in the near impossibility to complete them. Think of writing a presentation and talking on the phone at the same time. We can’t pursue any of these tasks accordingly because of the interference between these two tasks (both involve communication via speech medium or written words). 

The exception is when one of the tasks is physical, we have done it very often, and we are pretty good at it, then we can add a mental task — for example, walking and talking at the same time, or eating and reading at the same time. 

David Strayer, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Utah, believes there is an outlier category of supertaskers, a tiny 2% of those people Strayer tested, whose performance can improve, not decrease when dealing with multitasking or context switching. 

As you read these words, I have no doubt your narrator’s voice already confirms that yes, indeed, you are, in fact, part of the supertaskers. “You’re not,” Strayer tells. “The ninety-eight per cent of us, we deceive ourselves. And we tend to overrate our ability to multitask.” After all, we are very, very good at deceiving ourselves.

Strayer’s research found an inverse correlation between a person’s perceived ability to multitask and actual multitasking performances: the better a person thinks they are regarding multitasking, the more likely their performance was unsatisfactory. 

While it is perfectly natural for computers to manage multitasking and context switches with no performance loss, our human brains cannot correctly control multitasking and context switching, affecting our productivity and well-being.

Of course, without multitasking and other executive functions, we couldn’t ever possibly adapt efficiently and quickly to everchanging situations. The problem arises when we find ourselves in an almost always multitasking situation to keep afloat with the demands of our work and ongoing interruptions.

It is no wonder that our workdays feel like a struggle of navigating between the Scylla of news, emails, and todo-lists and the Charybdis of our dwindling attention, energy, and focus.

Previously published at