How to Break the Task-Switching Cycle
*If* it's an actual problem, here's what to do instead.
When is it a problem to switch tasks when you’re stuck?
A client asked me this via text today, so I thought I’d share a modified version of my answer with you. My modifications fill in some blanks that my client knows due to working with me and I also added the takeaways/next steps at the end.
I’ve noticed I often bounce between a series of related (sometimes unrelated) tasks — often not finishing one before moving to the next. The pattern seems to be when momentum on a task starts slowing down. Then my attention moves to thinking of something else I can advance NOW, and then I move to THAT thing instead… until that thing starts to slow down. I assume this is common, but is it a problem? If so, how do you tackle it?
Yes, this is very common. I wrote How to Lose an Hour of Creative Mojo in Two Minutes in 2010 with creators in mind, but with a few changes based on your work context1, the principles are the same.
For more posts about keeping your creative/productive mojo, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Where it becomes a problem is when it creates a pattern where there are too many open loops that then collectively bug you OR when the tasks become a commitment to others that then makes you negotiate deadlines or create deadline competition. In this case, the simple "I'll just move this task forward" can unwittingly create an urgency spiral that will displace your ability to do more strategic and proactive work with those focus blocks.
Also, notice when you switch because external stuff slows it down versus when it gets hard or murky and it's a soft ragequit that makes you switch. It's one thing when the team you handed it to is taking forever to prioritize it. It's quite another when "I'm stuck" is actually "this is a difficult problem to solve and I'm in my feelings about the fact that I'm not done with it yet."
Post-publish edit:from commented “Oooooooor you have ADHD. Task switching is in the DSM, and if it's a problem, it might be worth pursuing a diagnosis.” I wanted to surface this as a possibility in the post itself since you may not read it in the comments. Thanks, Briar!
Typically, when people ask me if it’s a problem, it’s a problem. It could be a problem merely because it’s noisy, in which case it’s about giving yourself permission to work in a way that’s effective for you, even if it feels inefficient.
If it’s the latter because of too many open loops, though, then it’s a matter of changing the response to the “this task is slowing down” stimulus.
I usually encourage people to have a list of go-to good/proactive alternative tasks to do that are fun, future-building, or focusing. For instance, you could instead read a section of a book, capture your thoughts/reflections from a meeting, or take a quick walk around the office (or building) versus pushing forward the task. I don’t have them seed it with frogs or fire-fighting because they won’t do the former and the latter is what we’re trying to interrupt.2
I’ve answered this based on tasks (15-20m action items), but you can make necessary modifications for focus blocks or project chunks. I addressed this in Start Finishing in the section on "Beware the Siren Call of the Easier Project," but as a recap, if you have a habit of switching projects for the easier project, you're unlikely to build the practice, skills, and mindsets to do your best work projects. Many people get "stuck" for similar reasons across different types of projects, so it's not about any given project but instead about the five keys they need to practice and strengthen.
Are you switching because the tasks are truly stuck (because of outside reasons) OR are you stuck because they’re difficult and you need to practice the five keys?
Are you unintentionally creating urgency spirals due to switching? And might you be in the urgency spiral because that’s a more comfortable place for you to be in than truly focusing on your best work? (You might be surprised about how many people are using the urgency spiral to hide.)
What activities might you do when you can’t push an activity forward that are focusing, future-building, or fun instead of merely a task you push forward with the time available?
They’re an exec in a Fortune100 company. I may write a team- and leader-focused version of this forin the next few weeks.
I was already ideating on a new worksheet or post about this, so my client’s question affirms that it'll be useful to others and not just another cool thing I'm thinking about. Look for it in the next couple of weeks.