The Cost of Context Switching

context switchingIt’s a pretty tired discussion in my house: Multi-threading, multi-tasking, the cost of context switching, etc.

Especially with a teenager at the dinner table…

So I found a nifty exercise to drive the point home.

Supplies Needed:
  • One volunteer who considers themselves an expert context-switcher / multi-threader
  • Three decks of playing cards
  • A timer
  • Audience participation

How to Play

Layout three decks of playing cards, in three piles. (If you want to head off “a cheat,” remove in advance a couple of cards from each deck, or leave the jokers in, so none of the piles has exactly 52 cards)

  • Objective: in 30 seconds, the volunteer is to count out loud as many cards as possible from all three decks.

Run #1: 30 seconds

  • Just go. Count ‘em undisturbed: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5….
  • How many does the volunteer get thru? 80? 90? 100?

Run #2: 30 seconds

  • Now inform the volunteer that all three piles are equally important to count, and they can only count from each individual pile for only five seconds at a time, then they must switch to the next pile. (You keep time and call “switch” every five seconds)
  • How far do they get? 30? 40?
  • How does the volunteer feel?

Run #3: 30 seconds

  • On this run, the volunteer can count any way they like; and you ask simple questions every five seconds: “what’s your name?” “what’s today’s date?” “what day of the week is it?” “what time is it?” “what’s for lunch?” “what color is my shirt?”
  • Volunteer is obliged to answer each and every question…
  • How many cards this time? 10? 15?
  • How does the volunteer feel now?

The Bottom Line

It takes more energy for a person to shift their attention from task to task. It takes less energy to focus. That means that people who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, as a bonus they’ll be less tired and less neuro-chemically depleted after doing it.



Why can’t we read anymore?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top