Skip to content

Switching between tasks

Many productivity strategies focus on how to stay on-task. However, it’s equally important to know how to switch tasks. A tendency to hyper-focus and perfectionism can both make switching tasks challenging.

Why is it important to know how to stop working on a task?

Imagine for a moment that you have a problem set to complete with 5 items for one class and an upcoming exam to study for in a different class. You have three hours in your day for studying. You plan to use one hour of it for the problem set and two hours of it for studying. At the end of the first hour, you’ve only completed three items of the problem set and you just can’t figure out the fourth item. It feels like you are close to solving the problem and you want to work a little bit longer to see if you can get it. Pretty soon, you’ve used up an hour of the time you had planned to study for the exam. This leads to a worse grade on your exam, which accounts for a much bigger portion of the grade in that class than your problem set does in your other class. Therefore, continuing to work on the problem set instead of switching tasks has negatively impacted your overall GPA.

Things to try

Have a specific plan

In order to know how much time to spend on a task, you need a specific plan for the day that includes an idea of how long you should spend on each task. To figure out the length of time to allocate to each task, consider your priorities and estimate how long your task will take.

Build in transition time

Set an alarm to go off 5-15 minutes ahead of when you need to wrap up your work. You can use a shorter transition period (5 minutes) for a smaller task and a longer transition period (15 minutes) for a complex or longer task.

When the alarm goes off, begin winding down your work. Write a few notes down about what you accomplished and what’s left to do so you can pick up where you left off. Start physically closing down the work. Exit out of the program or close the document on your computer. Shut your book and put your papers away.

Open up your next task so it will be ready to go. Sometimes people find it easier to close down the task they are working on after they open up the new one. Do a little experimenting to see what works for you.

Then, before you start working on the new task, take a moment to do some small movements. Stretch your body. Get a brief snack or take a bathroom break.

Ease into your new task by reviewing what needs to be done. Get a game plan for what you intend to accomplish. Then break down the next step into a small enough task that you won’t be too overwhelmed to get started on it.

But it’s too stressful to leave something unfinished!

Yes, it doesn’t always feel very good to stop something before you’ve gotten it to where you wanted. But it feels even worse not to complete a class or get a worse GPA because it was too hard to switch tasks. There’s no magic solution that will make it feel good to stop working. However, there’s a strategy called REST that can help.  Click to view the HTML text for the REST tool.