Context switching

Yesterday I wrote about the many hats that academics have to wear. A side-effect of wearing many hats is that you can very easily fall into the trap of constantly context switching, which significantly affect your productivity. The negative effects of context switching are particularly deleterious for academics who need extended periods of time to dedicate to deep work.

Briefly, context switching is the act of moving from one task to another, unrelated, one. The problem is that it takes cognitive effort to move from one task to the other and your focus is typically impaired for a while after the transition. If you have to wear many hats, the result is that you can lose a significant chunk of your time just transitioning between tasks - context switching.

Whilst it is not reasonable to entirely eliminate context switching, there are some techniques that I have found to be useful in minimising its effects. You can read more about some of these productivity methods over at todoist.

Time blocking: At the beginning of each week, I block off substantial periods of time (2-3 hours) in my calendar and allocate a specific task to each block. Typically this will be deep work - something that I need to focus on for extended periods (e.g., doing actual maths, drafting a paper, writing a proposal). I try to do at least 3 hours of deep work four days a week. By blocking time off in my calendar, I ringfence my time and make sure that everyone knows that I am unavailable during this time.

Task batching: Similarly to time blocking, I group similar tasks together and complete them all at the same time. These tend to be shallow work, such as dealing with emails, writing reference letters, reviewing papers, and other administrative tasks. By batching up these tasks, which typically have short durations, I avoid too much context switching and prevent these tasks breaking up my day. I typically task batch first thing in a morning and last thing in the afternoon when my energy levels and focus are at their lowest.

Day theming: This is essentially time blocking on steroids. Rather than blocking off partial days, you block off entire days for one specific task or category of tasks. Whilst I can rarely block off an entire day for a single task, I do try to - and mostly succeed in - blocking off one day per week for meetings and one day per week for administrative work and task batching. This doesn't mean that all meetings and administrative work are restricted to those days - that would simply not be practical - but I do schedule as many of my meetings and administrative work for those days as possible.

These approaches won't work for everyone and don't always work for me. However, I have found them a helpful framework in organising the various hats that I wear.

Day six of one hundred.

This post is part of my #100Days writing challenge, in which I have challenged myself to write for 10-20 minutes for 100 consecutive days.

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