Being a Boss at Context Switching, Part 2 – Daily Habits

Yesterday, I talked about context switching between projects and how smart preparation can help you prevent cognitive overload when context switching. The post focused on how to set up your projects and plan your week to prevent forgetting tasks or missing deadlines.

Today, I’ll focus on things you can do day-to-day to maintain a clear head when context switching. I’ll also cover efficient ways to ramp back into a project after being away from it for a few hours or days.

1. Help Out Your “Future Self”

I often joke about things I do for my future self–for when I need to quickly and easily ramp back into a project. One way I do this is by maintaining a consistent, steadfast method for storing files. I use consistent naming conventions, with a date and description. I also maintain folders for all of my project’s subtasks. These subtasks often align with my Asana tasks, making it easy to cross-reference my to-dos.

The trick to this method is to organize files immediately after a meeting or design review. If you let yourself get a backlog of notes or files, it can be a lot of effort to clean up at the end of a project. It also makes it hard to find files or notes while in the project!

For my sanity, I make a habit of taking really thorough notes during meetings. When possible, I take pictures, and I try to get all of my meeting notes captured digitally within a day (at most a week!) of the original meeting. These notes allow me to easily context switch, without worrying about forgetting details. I also plan time after meetings to wrap up my final thoughts and make sure they are written down somewhere that will be easy to find before I leave the meeting room.

If you are in a development role, you can help by maintaining thorough documentation throughout the process, remembering to highlight exceptions, the progress of work, or tests that aren’t working. Much like organizing files, it is best to do this as you develop instead of saving this job for the very end. You can also provide useful Git commit messages for the same reason.

Now that you have done all the prep to clear your brain of unnecessary information, it shouldn’t be so hard to context switch.

2. Clear Your Mind

There is a Russian custom of sitting on your suitcase before leaving for a trip. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, it gives you a moment to make sure you thought of everything and packed everything you might need. When switching between projects, take the 10-30 seconds you need to reflect on your project. Did you get all the tasks you needed added to Asana? Did you get all your final thoughts written down? Did you remember to commit? If not, jot down your thoughts and stash your changes! This prevents these tasks from nagging at you as you try to move onto a new project.

During this reflection time, I also actively clear my mind and push away all thoughts of the previous project. Much like a mini-meditation, it sets me up to be open and actively engaged with my next project.

3. Set Boundaries

My last tip is for those times when someone interrupts you in the middle of a project to talk about one you aren’t working on at that moment. When this happens, I politely ask if their issue is an active blocker. In most cases, it isn’t, so I ask them to schedule some time on my calendar in a few hours or days, depending on the urgency. If the task is a blocker, I ask the person for a few moments so I can write down my thoughts and clear my mind before meeting with them. That way, I can come back to my task afterwards without losing any context.

These tips for organizing your time and tasks should help reduce the cognitive burden of context switching and help decrease wasted time.

Do you have any other tips for context switching on the job?