I have a feeling my grandmother never once heard or used the phrase "context switching." Growing up on a farm there was hard work to be done and little time for competing priorities. Yet for me the concept is so familiar that I've even wondered how different personality types respond to context switching and are affected by it. Is it easier for some folks than others? Does the energy use required impact introverts more? Susan Cain's 2011 blog post for Psychology Today shed some light for me, which made me reflect on context switching for introverts and the impact in my own life.
What I've observed is:
When I switch gears to another category, it takes more energy than when I switch activities within the same category.
Categories at work might be project planning, personnel and hiring, project creation, strategic thinking, mentoring, problem-solving, etc.
For example, if I'm working on a plan for an upcoming project, my brain is running through a bunch of logistics, such as who needs to be involved, what is the timeframe, what needs to be included in the first release, etc. Switching among those tasks seems to use the same part of my brain. But if I then need to switch to, say, emailing a response to a job applicant, my brain comes to a crashing halt and takes time to start up again. Now I need to account for things like answering politely, communicating clearly, and remembering what not to say during the hiring process.
Categories at home might be spending quality time with family members, household chores, reading, exercising, planning for an upcoming event, etc.
For example, I usually talk with my parents on the phone on Sunday evenings. It's a ritual I look forward to, but depending on what I've been doing beforehand, the idea of a phone call, even to loved ones, can sound draining.
I find that a lot of my energy is gobbled up during context switching. I try to structure my days to avoid it, but is seems like this aspect of modern life is here to stay.