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Make Work Worth Doing: The Impact of Task Switching on Work and Life

Updated: Mar 7

In our pursuit of personal and operational productivity, we too often lose sight of that deeper purpose behind improving work. What contributes to a life worth living? From a psychological and Lean Thinking perspective, the purpose is not productivity or cost reduction, although these are often a result. The purpose is to create value, raise our standard of living, and improve our quality of life. Every kaizen brings us closer to work worth working, while misguidedly valued work styles and concepts like task switching pull us further away from our personal flow state.


Is there really such a thing as being in “the zone?” If so, what happens out of “the zone?”


Behind the phrase we’ve come to know as “the zone” is the theory of Flow State. It is regularly used to describe professionals, artists, or athletes as they bring the right balance of skill to the right balance of challenge, thus achieving a psychological state that elicits a sense of timelessness, ecstasy, and inner clarity. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2004) developed a model that demonstrates the path to Flow State and the alternative psychological states that occur outside of Flow:


(Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014)


Our lives are filled with challenges that break our flow. Task switching, or multitasking, may be one of the most critical and common challenges. In fact, it has been sold to us as a means to greater productivity. Not only is this untrue, but it erodes productivity, destroys value creation, lessens our standard of living, and deteriorates our quality of life. While overlapping work may give the appearance of multiple goals being accomplished at once, in reality people are constantly switching back and forth from moment to moment as they work, which incurs heavy costs and significant problems (American Psychological Association, 2006).


The following activity demonstrates this, and is as simple as saying your ABC’s or counting to 26, and it can help you and your teams quickly experience and measure the impact of a sneaky stress-inducing and value-reducing problem: task switching.



In the course of our kaizen practice, the cost of switching is observable - it looks like a waste of motion as people put something down to finish something, and then return back to the first thing to (maybe) finish it. We can even quantify the time and frequency associated with that motion and create an opportunity size.

When work provides significance to the people doing it and the experience of that work allows people to be present, it results in satisfaction and engagement. This state compels people to contribute to their organizations above and beyond any job requirement; the motivation becomes intrinsic and personal (Podsakoff et al., 2000) (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014 ). Poorly designed work that unnecessarily increases challenge and introduces stress and distraction diminishes people’s ability to be present, leading to a loss of personal and organizational value, and even counterproductive behavior (Podsakoff et al., 2000).


We have great news! There are effective ways to systematically prevent task switching so that our teams have work that allows them to maintain customer focus, decrease lead-times, create more value, raise our standard of living, and improve the quality of life.


Get in touch if you want to learn more.





References


American Psychological Association. (2006, March 20). Multitasking: Switching costs. Multitasking: Switching costs.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004, February). über “Flow” [Video]. Ted Conference. https://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_flow_the_secret_to_happiness?language=de


Nakamura, J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). The concept of flow. In Flow and the foundations of positive psychology (pp. 239-263). Springer, Dordrecht.


Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Paine, J. B., & Bachrach, D. G. (2000). Organizational citizenship behaviors: A critical review of the theoretical and empirical literature and suggestions for future research. Journal of Management, 26(3), 513-563. doi:10.1177/014920630002600307


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