How the Psychology of Task Switching Will Have You Re-Arrange Your Day

by Site Author

You probably have days that feel more productive than others. And there are reasons why some days are better than other. You only get a good night’s sleep before some days. Perhaps you endure fewer interruptions on some days. Maybe even the weather makes a difference.

But there’s one factor you can control that can really make a difference. How you arrange your work over the course of the day can matter.

For years now, psychologists have studied what they call “task switching.” Imagine the following two tasks. First, the letter task: you have to classify letters as either consonants or vowels. Second, the number task: you have to classify numbers as either odd or even.

Two psychologists at the University of Cambridge, Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell, gave those two tasks to participants in a lab experiment. The participants sat in front of a computer and pressed buttons to indicate whether the letter or number flashed at them was a consonant/vowel or odd/even.

Rogers and Monsell forced some participants to switch back and forth from the letter task to the number task. Other participants were allowed to go through the tasks in “blocks:” they handled the letter task dozens of times and then performed the number task dozens of times.

Participants who were given “single-task blocks” did much better than those given “mixed-task blocks.” The chart below plots reaction times for the two groups. Those having to switch between the two tasks had much longer reaction times.

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All of this demonstrates that people face “task switching costs.” Switching from one task to another is effortful. And every time you switch, you pay a switching cost.

Psychologists have since used the concept of switching costs and experiments like this one to learn how the mind works. But, for the rest of us, the literature provides very clear advice on how to get things done.

Divide up your day into single-task blocks rather than mixed-task blocks. To organize your day otherwise would mean paying switching costs over and over again.