Switching Costs

In CBS’s world adventure race program ‘The Amazing Race’ there’s a game element called the ‘Detour’. The ‘Detour’ is a team activity requiring completion before continuing on the race itself. Each ‘Detour’ includes two activities – each team needs to select one from an opaque two- or three-word description of each.

The goal is to complete the selected, obscure activity quickly and continue racing to that leg’s pitstop – and not be the last team arriving. For, as Phil says at the beginning of each leg, “The last team may be eliminated”. 
The vast majority of teams select their activity, complete it with some level of difficulty, and continue on. A few teams struggle so substantially that they decide to cut their losses on the initially selected activity and switch to the other activity. With this decision they’re betting that, even with the additional time cost of transporting themselves to the new activity and figuring out what it is, they’ll complete it more quickly than continued attempts at the initial activity. Mathematically, the odds are against them. Each minute they spent on switching (transitioning out of the first activity and into the second – both physically and mentally) could have been spent on another attempt to successfully complete the first activity. 

“…An old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.” – Abraham Lincoln.

While the costs of switching are substantial and obvious from the armchair, they’ll more invisible and subtle in the banality of our own lives. We pay switching costs in; time commuting, time moving between meeting rooms, time switching between projects, time switching between different kinds of activities all from the same swivel office chair. It doesn’t matter if these activities are two equally important projects, a project and email, a project and an unexpected interruption by a co-worker, a project and a Facebook notification. Each switch delays the completion of the initial task by diffusing available mental energy. Across a team of any size these individually invisible minutes quietly evaporate hours and days. 

This is horribly unfortunate considering the entire purpose of a firm, of a company with employees in a centralized office, is to minimize these switching costs. It’s a promise that if everyone is in the same office at the same time, day in, day out, and applying effort in the same direction then coordination, collaboration will be easier and business value will more likely be captured than would be with a distributed group of solo practitioners. 

Unfortunately, the promise is not always fulfilled. Today’s corporate environments are chockfull of switching costs; sudden interruptions, unanticipated ‘urgent’ meetings, multiple high priority efforts running concurrently within the same team. Each response, each pull from focus, subtly and imperceptibly subtracting from the available time to do the work, across teams, across departments.  

I first felt the pain of switching costs early in my independent career where I, far too late, realized I could sell the work or I could do the work I sold – but I couldn’t do both in the same day. Not that I didn’t try, time and time again. Each time I tried, found myself mentally stuck halfway between the two contexts – completely unsure where I left off or what I needed to do next. I was paralyzed – watching the hours melt away. 

Since that time, I’ve found 5 strategies to dramatically minimize losing time to switching costs:

1.  Schedule work of the same tightly-defined context into a single uninterrupted timeblock. 
 Think of contexts as singular ‘trains of thought’ that you want arrive at the station as quickly as possible. Anything slowing the train down is likely a different context. Schedule that context separately and distinctly.
The expectation of supporting two very different contexts simultaneously is not unique to solo practitioners (e.g. selling/working as I described above) – it’s also surprisingly common in the corporate world. A member of a management team I work with stacks their 1:1 team meetings three-deep at 1pm everyday. Same kind of conversation, same kind of energy, same time each day. 

Some of my clients alternate days of the week for individual projects; Monday for Project Alpha, Tuesday for Project Beta, Wednesday back to Project Alpha etc. This ensures a fixed day-long context for each project, uninterrupted by the others. This is the only definition of multitasking that I’ve found to be both productive & sustainable. The in-between day also bakes-in the creative benefit of stepping away and returning with fresh eyes. 

Processing messages (email, voicemail, snail mail), replying to them, and doing the work they describe is in fact three contexts masquerading as one. Break them up and schedule them accordingly – yes I regularly have appointments on my calendar like, “reply to John’s email about research questions.” This also means only checking inboxes at the appointed time – for even tabbing into the inbox risks a switching cost. 

2. Schedule your interruptions.
I hear audible disbelief every time I suggest interruptions can be scheduled. There are a number of ways to do it.

The first is eliminating visual and auditory interruptions from devices (i.e. silence your phone). One of my clients always has their phone on silent. Always. Has for years. My phone (Motorola Pure X) automatically silences itself when there’s an appointment on my calendar. It won’t ring if I’m in a client meeting or deep into project work (for both are scheduled).

Extending beyond needy devices, college professors for years have had ‘office hours’ – scheduled time where they expect to be interrupted by needy students. In recent years that notion has extended into the venture capital realm. Recently, in an effort to reduce interruption and stay focused on a substantial, strategic project, one of my client teams has instituted weekly ‘office hours’. To date it has wholly eliminated interruption outside of those pre-defined hours. Presuming you start with a couple sessions a week, it’s rare the issue is so pressing it can’t wait a day or two. 

If you don’t yet feel comfortable with scheduled office hours, a first step in that direction would be to encourage your reports to explain their problem to a rubber duck before bringing it to you (the problem, they’ll need the duck later). Too often our knee-jerk response is to add another person to a problem – when what we really need is to fully describe the problem out-loud and without interruption (oh, the irony). 

3. Find the best location for each context – maximize your time there.
I meet my best clients outside their office, for we’ve found that stepping slightly outside those familiar four walls helps our conversation stay focused on solving tomorrow’s challenges, not today’s urgency. I regularly stack appointments in the same neighborhood, sometimes even the same restaurant or coffee shop. This minimizes overall transportation costs. Back, when I worked more on-site, when I had a conversation unrelated to that specific client’s project – even if it was with a different buyer at the same company – it was far easier to focus our conversation out of the office (out of the office is likely where your best work happens anyway). 
Similarly, just as there is some work that’s best done in front of the screen, some work is done best completely away from the screen. Maybe your best thinking comes from staring out across Silver Lake. Then schedule your thinking there – not feeling trapped in a dark, cramped office overlooking the city bus garage. Don’t rush back after you found the answer you were looking for. Linger, find one or two more. Your brain just got warmed up.  If ‘where’ you work includes the tools you’re using, my best thinking usually comes from one of two places; three-pages handwritten, or one of my four 36″ * 48″ whiteboards.  

4. Minimize commutes.
Traffic is one of the most challenging things to consistently estimate. If Scheduling was a superhero, Traffic would be the arch-enemy. An easy 20-minute trip always has the potential to suddenly and unexpectedly take 60 minutes for visible reason. Doesn’t matter if you’re traveling by car, bus, airplane, or bicycle. Each mode has this risk. Effectively and consistently accounting for travel time for any distance over five miles makes minimizing switching costs a challenge. One way is to travel outside of peak hours. Here in the midwest that often means planning to arrive at the office before 8am – which is great if the intention is to get ahead of the afternoon rush hour and arrive home before 4pm. Unfortunately, it too often becomes 7pm. 
Another method is to shorten the commute either in distance or in frequency – this is where working from home (or within walking distance of home) all or some part of the week is beneficial. The people I work with are always surprised and delightful how much can be accomplished when a regular commute is swapped for actual doing. The world is a touch easier with when your schedule is ever so slightly out of sync with the rest of the world. Breakfast with the family is completely worth it. Target at 2pm is completely worth it. The DMV at 8am is completely worth it. 

Commutes come in all sizes. Today, look for those little commutes you do regularly. Maybe it’s walking across the building to the printer. Maybe it’s an elevator ride or two, next time you’re doing it – ask yourself, ‘How can I retain the benefits of this trip while minimizing the switching costs?’

5. Schedule your switches and fuel through them. 
You can deliberately schedule your transitions. You can add margins to your commitments.
While our digital calendars allow us to specify travel time to a commitment, travel time from a commitment is a little trickier. You could schedule an appointment (‘travel from x to y’). As a way of universally solving this across all my commitments, I leave 15-30 minutes of white space between commitments. While not ideal (protecting white space requires constant vigilance – both to ensure it doesn’t evaporate and remembering why it’s there) it has made transitions far easier. Even with this small technique you can see how quickly context switches can chew up your day – 15-minute transitions on either side of a 30-minute conversation turns it into a 1 hour commitment. If you include even a paltry 30-minutes of prep & follow-up, the same phenomenon invisibly turns a 1-hour conversation into a 3-hour commitment. It’s all these invisible parts of ensuring commitments are successful that we underestimate when we make the commitment. 

Even the smallest transition, say from working on a screen to face-to-face conversation is a context switch requiring a deliberate transition. Give yourself 15-minutes to come to a complete stop out of one context and prepare for another (hat tip Jamie Thingelstad). During the transition – grab a glass of water and some quality fuel (e.g. a handful of fruit, veg, nuts). 

6. Make fewer commitments. 
Fewer commitments inherently means fewer switching costs. It also means more time to ensuring the commitments you do make are as wildly successful as they can be. Not every discomfort needs to be resolved. Not every discomfort needs to be resolved now. Say ‘No’ more. Decline more. Delegate more. The time & mental space you open up by eliminating the work you don’t want to do will inevitably be filled by the work you do. As my good friend Patrick Rhone says, “Saying ‘No’ is saying ‘Yes’ to other things.”