The Cost of Context Switching
The Cost of Context Switching

The Cost of Context Switching

Posted by on Thursday, June 4th, 2015  


Many times we want to give someone a quick status by stopping by their office and saying a quick sentence. I’m the recipient of this type of drive-by status quite often. Usually it happens by people standing in my doorway and starting to talk. They mean well. They are probably thinking, “I’ll give the team lead a quick update because he needs to know.” But what almost always happens to me is that my thought about the code, document or email that I’m currently focused on flies out of my brain and I go into context switching mode.

Context switching is something we’re all asked to do or pressured to do on a regular basis. Whether it’s doing our work with our email client open or having someone interrupt your train of thought for help or status during your focused time or even if you are playing phone games while you work, context switching always has a penalty.

stock-footage-happy-businessman-is-laughing-whilst-using-mobile-phone-indoorsNow, when it comes to playing phone games or keeping personal text conversations going throughout the day, I have a personal rule against that. I notice these behaviors mostly in recent graduates. Perhaps it’s the video game culture, I don’t know. And this blog is not attempting to point fingers at this behavior or solve this common work place problem.

Not staying glued to my phone isn’t something I can enforce on others, even as a manager. But for me, I need to focus on the task at hand to ensure my customer gets my best work and the quality of my output stays high.

There are times when context switching is necessary. For some of us, people need our mentorship and input at various times of the day in order to know which direction to take. Sometimes, the people who work for me want to give me that quick status to get my opinion on a matter or advice on a subject.

Here are a couple of thoughts regarding what you as the information giver can do to decrease the duration of the context switching for your recipient.

As my mother used to tell me as a kid “don’t walk into a room mouth first.” If you are going to drop by someone’s office, wait to be acknowledged. If the office setup allows, knock. You are asking for their time if you are the person’s manager or even the CEO. Waiting to be acknowledged is simple courtesy and it shows respect for the other person. It is also practical. Perhaps the person is on speakerphone and there is a lull in the conversation. Perhaps they are typing an email, or maybe they are in the middle of debugging a difficult code problem. You are coming to them. Be humble and wait to be acknowledged.

Invariably, when a status drive-by happens, the person giving status is truly trying to be quick. They might say something like “I took care of that thing we talked about yesterday” or “they’ll be happy with the fix we made.” My experience is that the way these quick statuses are phrased almost always prompts the recipient to ask more questions. If you’re the giver of the information, be specific. Don’t say “they” when it gives the complete information to state who “they” is. The recipient may be focused on customer A and you’re talking about B. Tell the recipient who you’re referring to so they don’t’ have to guess or ask. Don’t use “it” or “that thing” when stating what task or problem you are referring to. Be specific.

Tell the person what you’re expecting them to do with the information. Do you want them to give you advice? Answer a question? Is this just an FYI (for your information) status? So often someone tells me status and I have to ask “what do you want me to do?” Don’t make the recipient guess at why you are telling them this information. You came to them remember?

Wrap it up, Matt! Remember these things when asking someone to shift gears (switch contexts) Wait until the other person is ready to listen before you open your mouth. Don’t assume they know the customer or problem already. Be specific when you are giving the status or information. Tell the recipient what you want them to do with the information.


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