The human brain is an amazing thing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by people – why they react in a certain way, why they behave so differently in a shared situation.
Last week, I participated in two courses; Wellingtone’s APM accredited Change Management Practitioner in the morning sessions and the APM Project Fundamentals Qualification in the afternoon. Despite having knowledge of both subject areas and the fact that there was a lot of cross over in subject matter, I still found myself taking a little while to get back into the swing of things at each session. Why was that?! I was so frustrated as the sessions flowed brilliantly from the previous day, but I really struggled to switch my brain from one to the other.
Good old context switching. According to Wikipedia, the precise meaning of the phrase “context switch” varies. In computing, it refers to the process of storing the system state for one task, so that the task can be paused, and another task resumed. A context switch can also occur as the result of an interrupt, such as when a task needs to access disk storage, freeing up CPU time for other tasks. Some operating systems also require a context switch to move between user mode and kernel mode tasks.
The important thing is that the process of context switching can have a negative impact on system performance.
What has context switching got to do with the brain?
When we try and focus our attention on more than one thing at a time or we change tasks, the same thing is happening. Gladstones, Regan & Lee 1989 and Pashler 1994 refer to it as bottlenecking. This is the idea that people only have a limited amount of attention, so what is perceived as the most important information is kept. Many researchers believe that action planning and retrieving information from memory are subject to the most severe form of this bottlenecking. Hence why when I was trying to remember where I was in the course from the previous day, it took me a little while to get back into the swing of things
It made me think about how working from home has affected how we switch between work and home modes. No more commuting home to digest our day and get ready to become our “home” persona. Often, I will walk out of the office to go straight into mum mode, but it takes me a good half an hour to shake off the work me.
That’s half an hour of time where I’m not really present and my brain is feeling fuzzy; trying to take in my daughter’s latest made-up dance or song, listening to what she’s been up to at school, discussing what to have for dinner with my husband. My husband will comment about the fact that I’m on another planet as I’m trying to respond to WhatsApp messages about birthday parties whilst answering his questions about plans for the garden or where his car keys are.
Having that clear dividing line between tasks means that we can be more productive and focused. How often have you been interrupted and lost your place, whether it be at work or home, meaning that you’ve got to go back to a point that you remember? I’ll bet that if you add up all the time lost through context switching, you would be surprised.
Avoiding Context Switching Bottlenecks
I’ve recently discovered Focus Time in Microsoft. It blocks out a couple of hours in my day and mutes Teams and email notifications. It allows me to really take time and concentrate on what I’m doing. Couple that with a productivity music playlist and it’s amazing what can be achieved.
Google, Samsung, and other technology also provide the ability to focus on specific aspects of the content such as work or personal. So utilising technology to support you during the transition periods is a key success factor.
The book How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Allcott talks about the power of Attention Management. The concept focuses on the fact that your attention is more limited than your time.
So, understanding how your levels of Proactive, Active, and Inactive attention change throughout the day is a great way to become more productive, by effectively scheduling your work based on your attention levels throughout the day.
Check out our Time Management Tips article HERE
The PMO Perspective
For PMO Leaders and teams, virtual working has provided many benefits and many deficits. Empathising with their teams is more important in the work economy since working from home has become normalised.
Investment is required from Leaders both in the time to educate and understand their employees and acknowledge that most will need time for context switching, especially when life admin is calling, or roles are changing.
So, providing delivery and other teams with the tools and technology that allows them to manage their own attention switching bottlenecks can support individuals with the wellbeing, as well as bring higher productivity to delivery teams.
The combination of the current virtual work economy and the fact that many individuals are changing and evolving their roles means that many find themselves context switching various times throughout each day.
Taking the time to embed a #HumanFirst approach in team leadership and collaboration will be key to supporting good project management practice as teams develop. When delivering change, ensuring that a focus is placed on the change management needs of those impacted, affecting, and affected by the change is key to providing a supportive environment.