The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


What Is The 'Cognitive Switching Penalty'?

Every time you switch your attention from one subject to another, you incur the Cognitive Switching Penalty. Your brain spends time and energy thrashing, loading and reloading contexts.

Neurologically, multitasking is impossible. You are not really doing two things, you're switching your attention from one thing to the other. Productive multitasking is a myth.

To avoid unproductive switching, it's best to group similar tasks together. That way your brain needs to load the context into working memory only once. You'll get more done with less effort.

Josh Kaufman Explains The 'Cognitive Switching Penalty'

Every project and every task that you decide to work on takes a certain amount of attention, energy, and focus to get it done.

The question is: how can you accomplish everything you need to do most effectively?

Many people rely on multitasking: trying to do more than one thing at the same time. While many people assume this makes them more efficient, Monoidealism and multitasking are complete opposites.

Neurologically, it's impossible for your brain to multitask. When you're trying to do more than one thing at a time, you're not really parallel processing-you're rapidly switching your attention from one thing to another. While you're paying attention to Task A, you're ignoring Task B until you switch back to it. As a result, productive multitasking is a myth.

According to several recent neurological studies , the more things you try to pay attention to at any given time, the more your performance at all of them suffers. That's why it's never a good idea to talk on a cell phone while driving-by trying to focus on two things at once, your reaction times decrease to the same level as someone who's driving while intoxicated .

Every time you switch the focus of your attention from one subject to another, you incur the Cognitive Switching Penalty.

In order to take action, your brain has to "load" the context of what you're doing into working memory. If you constantly switch the focus of your attention, you're forcing your brain to spend time and effort thrashing, loading and reloading contexts over and over again.

That's why it's possible to spend an entire day multitasking, get nothing done, and feel exhausted at the end-you've burned all of your energy context-switching instead of making progress.

The Cognitive Switching Penalty is a Friction cost: the less you switch, the lower the cost.

That's why Monoidealism is so efficient-by focusing your attention on only one thing at a time, you're allowing your brain to load the context into working memory once, allowing you to focus your energy on actually accomplishing the task at hand. To avoid unproductive context switching, a batching strategy is best.

Eliminating distractions can help prevent unnecessary interruptions, but it's entirely possible to waste energy mentally thrashing even if you have the entire day free. The best approach to avoid unnecessary cognitive switching is to group similar tasks together.

For example, I find it difficult to make progress on creative tasks (like writing a book or shooting training videos) between client calls. Instead of attempting to juggle both responsibilities at the same time, I batch them together. I typically focus on writing for a few uninterrupted hours in the morning, then batch my calls and meetings in the afternoon. As a result, I can focus on both responsibilities with my full attention.

I use a similar strategy when doing chores, updating financial reports, or running errands: I'll dedicate a few hours solely to those tasks. As a result, I accomplish everything I need to do in very little time.

Paul Graham, a venture capitalist, programmer, and essayist, calls this batching strategy "Maker's Schedule / Manager's Schedule." If you're trying to create something, the worst thing you can possibly do is to try to fit creative tasks in between administrative tasks-context switching will kill your productivity.

The "Maker's Schedule" consists of large blocks of uninterrupted time; the "Manager's Schedule" is broken up into many small chunks for meetings. Both schedules serve different purposes-just don't try to combine them if your goal is to get useful work done.

A simple rule of thumb I use to plan my day is the 3/10/20 method: in one day, I have the capacity to finish 3 major tasks and 10 minor tasks. A major tasks is any activity that requires more than 20 minutes of focused concentration; all other tasks are minor. If a major task is interrupted, re-starting it counts as a new task.

For example, one day’s major tasks might be writing a proposal, consulting with a client, and reviewing a book. Between these major tasks, I might make a short phone call, process and answer incoming email, read a few articles, do the dishes, and clean my office.

As long as I set aside large chunks of time for my major tasks, I can accomplish everything in a single day. If I’m interrupted in the middle of a major task, that task won’t be done that day, or another major task will have to slip. Keeping in mind that there’s a limit to what I can accomplish in a single day makes it easier to keep Stress and Recovery in balance.

Eliminate unproductive context switching, and you'll get more done with less effort.

Questions About The 'Cognitive Switching Penalty'


"Rule your mind or it will rule you."

Horace, first-century B.C. Roman poet


From Chapter 7:

Working With Yourself


https://personalmba.com/cognitive-switching-penalty/



WANT TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN UPDATES ARE PUBLISHED? Subscribe to Josh Kaufman's email newsletter. You'll receive Personal MBA updates, Josh's award-winning research, and useful resources that will help you make more money, get more done, and have more fun. It's free!

The Personal MBA

Master the Art of Business

A world-class business education in a single volume. Learn the universal principles behind every successful business, then use these ideas to make more money, get more done, and have more fun in your life and work.

Buy the book:


About Josh Kaufman

Josh Kaufman is an acclaimed business, learning, and skill acquisition expert. He is the author of two international bestsellers: The Personal MBA and The First 20 Hours. Josh's research and writing have helped millions of people worldwide learn the fundamentals of modern business.

More about Josh Kaufman →