January 12, 2018 mgoudz

Switching Costs

Photo by: Murray Severn

I’m sitting down to write this post and I’m not getting up until I click ‘publish.’ Why? I just can’t afford not to. I was talking to a colleague today, and we were discussing the multi-disciplinary nature of our fields of instructional/learning design. In a given week we’re asked to plan events, design classrooms, run workshops, supervise students, read research, perform research, consult, facilitate, experiment, and maybe design a course. One thing that draws many people to this field is the diverse nature of the work, but is there a cost to switching from role to role, from hour to hour, or minute to minute? When my colleague said there were high “switching costs” to doing so many different things, it clicked. Yes, in a day when I’m doing so many different things, I’m exhausted and don’t feel very accomplished. I tested this idea out on another colleague at the coffee machine. He agreed that days with less switching feel more productive.

We have all been warned about the dangers of multi-tasking and the impact it has on productivity. Rapidly switching between tasks might be just as bad, costing up to 40 percent of lost productivity, state the authors of Multitasking: Switching Costs (American Psychological Society, 2006). I wonder about the design implications for our work and calendars if we were to account for these costs.

It’s important to understand the two stages of executive control involved with switching tasks:

goal shifting – I’m now going to do this rather than that. For example, I’m leaving a course design meeting with a faculty member and answering an email from a student employee.


rule activation I’m turning off the rules for this and on the rules for that. I’m leaving a meeting where I’m a consultant to a communication where I’m an supervisor (APA, 2006).

What is interesting here is that even if I’m not shifting goals–I’m continuing on with answering emails, for example– the rules may still change. I’m writing an email to my boss asking for a raise after writing an email to an instructor answering a technical question. This, too, is switching and has costs.

Here are three ideas to reduce switching costs for learning designers or any knowledge workers:

Message batching: Rather than pouncing after the ding of a new message (which you should turn off), schedule time to read and respond to email. People won’t email you about a true emergency. You might need to pause your messenger (Slack, HipChat, Skype for Biz, etc) too.

Building in transitions: Recently I visited the Southern New Hampshire University. In each of their conference rooms are posted on the wall tips for running high-impact meetings. One community norm was that all meetings start 10 minutes or 40 minutes after the hour to allow people to walk across the block-long office building from meeting to meeting and to switch goals and rules to the next meeting.

Chunk your time: Rather than giving people any time open on your calendar for any task, schedule your days to have no meetings in the mornings. Or consultations on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and course building on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I’m about to click publish and I have gotten up once to switch on the light. That’s a cost I’ll pay, but we simply can’t afford to lose two full days a week to lost productivity through switching costs. What other ideas do you have for reducing switching costs?