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Context switching

Level of difficultyEasy
Reading time4 min

Hi! My name is Slava. I am currently working as a leading Product and Senior Project Manager at Uzum Bank. One of the leading digital banks in Uzbekistan.

We are growing fast. Really fast. Speaking in numbers, our interest income has increased x10 over the past year (!).

And, as in any similar projects with rapid growth, we constantly lack qualified personnel. So I and my colleagues always have a lot of work to do.

I have two teams with completely different products, and I also manage some projects as a project manager. And I have my own small business – an online tea and coffee shop. And in conclusion, I am the father of two small children)

So, I hope this makes it clear to you that I have faced all the problems, such as working at night, lack of sleep, working in a noisy environment, calls with crying children in the background, calls during breakfast on the wheels, when I take a child to kindergarten (never do that!) etc. and so on and so forth XD

You can ask me: how do you manage to do everything?
The answer is simple: I don't XD

But. This forces me to build a system that helps me quickly switch between different types of tasks, focus quickly and complete them over and over again.

So, today I want to tell you about one of the things, that can completely ruin your day. And sometimes – whole week. It's called "context switching".

What does that mean?

Well, the best explanation is based on the theory of an American physicist and mathematician—Freeman Dyson. He divided scientists into two groups: birds and frogs.

  • Frogs are people who love to delve into details. These people, as a rule, "live" their entire "life" in one "swamp." But they know absolutely everything about it. Every single pile.

  • Birds are completely different. These people fly high. Throughout their lives, they fly over different swamps. And they know about many such swamps. They also know about different kinds of frogs that live in each of them. But, of course, they don’t know every swamp in detail.

The funniest thing is that such a division can be applicable not only to scientists)) But to other people as well.
The most interesting thing – I'm sure that you change both these roles several times a day. I call this "context switching."

Let me give you some funny examples))

  • You're analysing a product and at that moment, a developer tugs at you with a request to clarify some detail in the business logic of a specific task.

  • You're a team lead, your task is to break a large project into milestones and distribute the workload across your team, but you're urgently asked to fix some bug. Right now.

  • You're dissecting business requirements to write a technical specification and your wife or child interrupts you with a question like "what do you think, when we go to restaraunt next week, should I wear the red dress or the white one?"

And that's it. It feels like you were running through a tunnel at the speed of light and then you were pushed out at full speed. And it takes time to react to the change. Once you've responded and solved the sudden problem, returning to that same "tunnel" takes a tremendous amount of effort. It can take as little as 20 minutes or as much as 2 hours or more. In these examples, you were pulled from the role of a "bird" into that of a "frog". You were doing a fairly "high-level" task, and suddenly you were forced to dig with a shovel.

Another example, which often occurs, is when you need to switch from "frog" to "frog", or from "bird" to "bird". This is usually much easier. The context does not change dramatically. For example, you are a developer working on a specific task and you are asked to switch to another specific task. Or you are a manager and during the management of one project, you are asked a question about another project. For people who spend most of their lives in the roles of "frogs" and "birds", such a switch happens almost easily.

We won't delve into the specific processes that occur in your brain when switching between "frog-bird-frog" today. However, if you are interested, all of them with detailed examples are described in the book "Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School". I highly recommend it. I consider this book a must-have for anyone living in our world of insane speeds.

Let's try to quickly figure out what to do and how to make life easier for ourselves and reduce the amount of stress from such context switches.

  • First, recognise the problem.
    I've been thrown off track. It's hard for me. What happened? I was doing a complex task, and someone asked me what time it was? And for some reason, I got distracted. It threw me out of context.

  • Second, calm your brain.
    Even though you've been thrown out of context, it's as if your brain is in a state of panic—millions of unstructured thoughts race through your head, and at the same time, nothing specific. Your brain is entering a state of inhibition. You should not try to return to the context, but rather—completely exit from it. For this, you need to do... nothing. Or perform maximally simple actions. Look out the window. Walk around the room. Go outside. Hold your child. Sweep the floor. Wash the dishes. With practice, inhibition can be reduced to 5-10 minutes. And about the same amount of time will take to re-enter the context.

  • Third, group contexts and plan your work with them.
    If you have many tasks like a bird—allocate a day or two for this. And try to stay in one context all this time. Then switch to being a frog for the next couple of days.

  • Fourth, determine what's really important.
    If someone tries to pull you out of context—ignore it. But, of course, not everything indiscriminately. And make agreements with people. Probably, if your direct supervisor is calling you for the third time, it might be worth getting distracted XD With your spouse or colleagues, it's important to agree that if you don't immediately react to their questions (especially when they approach you in person), it's not because you don't value them. But because you are doing something important and complex, and switching contexts will waste half of your day.

  • Fifth, practice meditation and breathing exercises.
    For me, this is the hardest part) But it's probably the most important. If you do a breathing exercise (doesn't matter which one; even the built-in exercise on an Apple Watch, for example) just once after a hard context switch, you'll find that you can calm your mind in less than a couple of minutes. But many people feel embarrassed in front of colleagues or simply forget to do this.

I hope this article helps you stay in shape and not lose yourself when switching contexts :)