Switching signals

​The bell rings. It’s the end of the lesson. 

Your parents poke their head outside and holler, “TEA’S READY!” Which means playtime is over. 

The Professor who shakes your hand as you graduate? He’s telling you that you’re about to begin a new phase in your life. 

The silence that greets you after you turn the engine off in the car park tells you it’s the start of the work day.

These are all signals that tell us to switch from one activity to another. When we’re younger, there’s a lot of them. Mostly provided by adults. They have control over our lives and shuttle us from one place to another, from one task to the next.

When we transition into adult life the signals to switch are still there. We have schedules. Working hours. Holidays. Weekends. Obligations and commitments. Hobbies. Typically, between each of the different activities, there’s a separator. Something that changes and consequently, makes us aware of the need to change mode. 

But what about when we’re creating? When we’re doing the work? After we’ve arrived at the office, got our cup of coffee and set ourselves up to start the day. How do we separate the tasks up?

If you’re a mid/high level executive, this is easy. You have an assistant who rings through and says, “Mrs Johnson, Mr Richards is here to see you.” That’s your signal to stop whatever you were doing and switch into meeting-a-client mode.

But if you don’t have an assistant? How do you give yourself the signal to switch between tasks?

You could have a virtual assistant. Or push notifications from various calendar or scheduling apps can easily perform this function. They can act as deliberate interrupters and get you to switch tasks.

A complete change of environment works in a similar way. Perhaps you do your main creative work in your office and attend meetings in the conference room. The change in environment notifies your mind of the change in the type of work you’re doing.

Another simple way to ensure effective switching? Have work areas. I’ll give you an example of a simple one. I do all my writing and admin tasks at my desk, on my laptop. Nowhere else. When I read, I sit on my bean bag. Those are two areas, or spots, with defined activities associated with them.

If you don’t have the luxury of setting up multiple stations for different activities, don’t worry. You could have a creative jumper. A jumper that you wear only when you’re doing creative work. Or perhaps, you have a toy, like a stressball or a set of magnets, that you fiddle with only when you’re answering emails.

Yet another way to signal a switch to yourself? Rituals. Here’s an example: I log the “deep work” that I do on a spreadsheet. It’s a practice I picked up (and then tweaked) from Sebastian Marshall. Before I begin in the morning, I fill out the following details and answer the questions:

– Time:
– Project/Sub-project

– What am I trying to accomplish?
– How will I get started?
– Are there hazards present?
– Energy/Morale? (High/Med/Low):

After I’ve finished the work block, I fill out some more details. Here’s a completed section from last week:

– Time: Mon 0550
– Project/Sub-project Phronetic/blog

– What am I trying to accomplish? Publish a new piece and draft two more
– How will I get started? By reading the latest post in the queue
– Are there hazards present? No
– Energy/Morale (High/Med/Low): High

– Goal completed? No. I only wrote 1 piece
– Were there any distractions? No
– Things to improve for next cycle? Have post ideas lined up the day before
– Energy/Morale (High/Med/Low): Med
– Total time spent working: 56 minutes

The completion of the PLAN and REVIEW sections act as bookends to each activity. They signal the beginning and the end. They help me to switch between modes and functions. To shift effectively from one activity to another.

You might be thinking, “why do I need to worry about switching? I just have a to-do list and work through it until it’s done.” 

Say the start and the end of your day are the only milestones you work by. In between those two poles, you’ll have to do many things. You’ll have to create, make calls, answer emails, think about complex issues and solve problems. Single-tasking, doing one thing at a time, is a key skill. It’s often the only way to do your best work. Don’t you think it’s easier to single-task when you’ve given yourself a set amount of time to do a specific task? Don’t you think you’ll be more productive if instead of having eight hours to do a list of stuff, you say to yourself:

Today’s agenda: 
– Answer emails for one hour. 
– Spend two hours in a meeting with department heads.
– Spend two hours working on the final details of project X.
–  Spend one hour in reactive mode, tying up loose ends, sending messages etc.

As Peter Drucker observed, efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right things. If you’d like to be more effective and more efficient, I suggest you explore and implement switching strategies. Using them to cut up your day transforms your work from one marathon-type slog into a series of short, sharp sprints