The switch cost effect: How task switching impacts productivity

Explore the switch cost effect in more detail, examining what it is, how it affects productivity, and what you can do to minimize its impact.

Switch cost effect: red switch on a blue background

Have you ever started working on a task and, at the end of your work session, realized that you had worked on several tasks but never finished what you initially planned?

Maybe you were in the middle of replying to an email when you checked the spelling of a word and got distracted by its etymology. Then, when you returned to the email, you couldn't remember why you needed that word in the first place.

What happened?

You fell victim to the switch cost effect.

Switching costs are the mental and physical costs incurred when switching between different tasks. Modern workplaces are plagued by high switching costs, with three out of five professionals admitting to multitasking regularly.

In this article, we'll explore the switch cost effect in more detail, examining what it is, how it affects productivity, and what you can do to minimize its impact.

Defining the switch cost effect

Change isn't easy, as the old saying goes. It rarely happens instantly or seamlessly, and it often has lingering effects.

Consider relocation. Physically moving your body and belongings from one house to another is only part of the change. You have tasks at your first location like rerouting mail to your updated address and closing accounts with old service providers. At the same time, you have work to do at your new location, sorting out things like new doctors and work commutes.

It's tiring to switch between locations, and before you know it, you're exhausted and losing motivation. This is similar to what happens in our minds when we switch between tasks.

The transition from one task to another involves significant cognitive effort, causing mental and physical fatigue, reduced task performance, and a loss of concentration — a phenomenon known as the switch cost effect.

The study of executive control and task switching

Switch cost effect: model of a head with lightning icons around it

Psychologist Arthur T. Jersild first described the switch cost effect in his 1927 work, Mental Set and Shift. As a result of his novel task-switching paradigm, Jersild discovered that the amount of time it takes for the brain to react is slower when it alternates between different tasks than when it repeats the same tasks. This loss of time is one of many switch costs.

Jersild's research paved the way for decades of psychological research on the switch cost effect. Since then, scientists have continued researching the brain's reorganization process to understand what happens when we change tasks. The result is the development of several task-switching paradigms, which explore the processes involved in switching from one focus to another.

Two primary task switching paradigms are:

  • Task-set reconfiguration. This approach contends that when we change tasks, our brain takes time to reorganize itself for the new challenge. Psychologists Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell studied this process in depth in the 1990s, concluding that switch preparation and practice can sometimes reduce, but not eliminate, switching costs.
  • Task-set inertia. According to this theory, switching costs occur not because our brains are preparing for the next task but because we're still stuck in the last one. Preparation seems to have no effect on this process.

Task switching was further explored in the 2000s by research psychologists Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans. A landmark study by Rubinstein and his team established that task switching consists of two distinct, complementary stages:

  • Goal shifting. In this stage, we add and delete goals to our working memory as needed. This allows other components of the system to know what the current task is.
  • Rule activation. A pause between goal shifting and response selection triggers this stage, which enables the current task selection rules and disables the previous ones.

Together, these stages allow us to unconsciously switch between tasks.

Psychological research on task switching still continues. With new studies emerging, researchers strive to understand how our brains handle task switching — and how to minimize its costs.

How does the switch cost effect impact productivity?

White and red footprints

The tremendous amount of research on task switching has made it clear that the switch cost effect can significantly impact productivity. According to psychologist David Meyer, shifting between tasks can cost us up to 40% of our productive time.

But it’s not just about time costs. The switch cost effect also:

  • Reduces the quality of our work. When we switch tasks, we're more likely to make mistakes. Rubinstein's team found that switching tasks resulted in more errors than repeating tasks.
  • Affects how much information we retain. Several studies conclude that task switching impairs the encoding of task-relevant information. Task switching disrupts our attention, making us more prone to distraction and resulting in poor memory retention.
  • Impedes flow. In the flow state, we're completely immersed in an activity, performing at our best. Getting into a flow state requires a sustained focus on one task, so it's harder to maintain when we multitask or get interrupted.
  • Leads to decision fatigue. Decision fatigue occurs when we become less likely to make good decisions as we grow tired. Task switching can contribute to this phenomenon by depleting our cognitive resources.
  • Wastes time. Every time you switch tasks during the workday, you lose around 23 minutes of concentration. Considering we change our focus on average 15 times a day, it's a wonder any work gets done.

However, task switching isn't always bad, even with high switching costs. In fact, some tasks benefit from interruptions.

If you're stuck on a challenging problem, taking a break can give you a chance to let your subconscious mind solve the issue while you focus on something else. In addition, new research suggests that multitasking can boost creativity.

Other times, switching tasks is simply unavoidable. The key is to minimize the switch cost effect by being aware of it and taking steps to reduce it.

5 ways to avoid the switch cost effect and make the most of your workday

Clock on a blue background

Think back to our moving example once more. It would've been much easier to handle that relocation to-do list if we'd started earlier and focused on one task at a time, right?

The same goes for our work days — we can make the most of our time by avoiding task switching as much as possible. Here are six tips for avoiding the switch cost effect and making the most of your workday.

1. Start your day with a plan

Prioritizing time management can help you avoid the switch cost effect. Before you begin your workday, take a few minutes to review your to-do list and make a plan for the day. When you know what needs to be done (and when), you’re less likely to switch tasks.

Many tools and techniques are available to help you plan if you struggle with poor time management. A great place to start is with a straightforward method like task batching. Task batching is a time management strategy where you group similar tasks together and work on them in blocks. For instance, you might batch all your email correspondence together into one hour at the end of the day or handle all your phone calls in a morning block.

Grouping similar tasks and repeating similar cognitive processes can help reduce task switching and its costs.

2. Set aside time for deep work

Deep work is an important concept popularized by Cal Newport in his book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”

Building off the foundation of the idea of flow developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Newport defines deep work as "professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit."

In other words, it's the opposite of task switching.

Newport's deep work rules suggest how we can schedule deep work into our schedules. Among them are:

  • Ritualize it. Pick a specific place and time to do deep work, and stick to an organized plan (like no phone use, etc.)
  • Embrace boredom. Social media and devices shouldn't take up all your time. Take regular breaks to just be.
  • Drain the shallows. Spend less time on busy work. Focus on deep work by scheduling blocks in advance.

Focusing on a specific task during deep work reduces the chance of task switching, resulting in better task performance and lower switching costs.

3. Break down big projects into smaller tasks

Big jobs can feel overwhelming, making it tempting to switch to a different task or procrastinate by multitasking. Resist the urge — if a job can't be completed in one work session, take a step back and determine how you can approach it step-by-step.

If you're having trouble, try a prioritization tool like the time management matrix. This can help you break down your tasks and prioritize them based on importance and urgency. For instance, if you're working on a lengthy report, you might break it down into tasks like "research," "create an outline," and "write the draft."

Once you have a list of smaller tasks by order of importance, just focus on completing one at a time. This will help you avoid multitasking and task switching, helping you stay productive and on track.

4. Try the 80-20 Rule

80 and 20

Another technique that can minimize task switching and maximize productivity is the 80-20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. Based on observations written by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in 1909, this rule suggests that we achieve 80% of our goals with 20% of our efforts. In other words, we can make a significant impact in a short amount of time if we focus on the right things.

To use the 80-20 Rule to reduce task switching, start by identifying the 20% of tasks that will give you the most results. Make these your priority, and then either delegate or schedule the other 80% of your tasks. Focusing your energy on the task set that will produce results means you'll be less tempted to switch to different tasks, cutting down switching costs.

5. Put away distractions

Uninterrupted focus is crucial for peak task performance. Unfortunately, our world is full of constant distractions, from our phones and social media to colleagues and family members. If we want to avoid task switching, we need to find ways to minimize distractions.

There are a few things you can do to reduce distractions and increase focus:

  • Turn off your cell phone or remove it from your workspace
  • Disable social media notifications on your phone and computer
  • Work in a quiet environment if possible
  • Set boundaries with friends and family members
  • Use digital tools like focus apps to block distracting websites
  • Invest in noise-canceling headphones to reduce stimuli
  • Let people know when you're unavailable

Reducing distractions can create an environment conducive to deep work and minimize task switching.

Bonus tip: Make time for nothing

Today's fast-paced nature often leads us to believe that to have a competitive advantage, we must always be productive. But we shouldn't — and we can't. The switch cost effect is proof of that.

Make time for rest by resisting the urge to fill your day with activity. Make time for "nothing" instead so that you can simply be.

You can spend your "nothing time" enjoying the silence, taking a walk, meditating, or any other relaxing activity you find pleasing. Whenever possible, avoid unnecessary stimuli. No cell phones, social media, or work. Simply let your mind wander and let yourself relax.

By making time for stillness, we give our brains the chance to process and recharge so we can be productive when it really matters. In moments of nothing, we create the space for something better to come in — like creativity, focus, and productivity.

Maximize productivity by minimizing the switch cost effect

The switch cost effect is a cognitive phenomenon that has been the subject of psychological research for decades. The cognitive processes involved in task switching have both time costs and psychological costs that can negatively affect productivity. Knowing how the switch cost effect works and affects our task performance can lead to meaningful changes in habits.

Take some time to observe how often you switch to new tasks throughout your day and what types of switching costs are affecting your task performance. Try out a few of these changes and see how they affect your productivity. You might be surprised at how much of a difference it can make.


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