The Science Behind Successful Task-Switching

What difference can one minute make? It may surprise you to learn that one minute can be the difference between successfully completing two tasks—or fumbling them both. Let’s explore how this theory can help us with the documents we create at work.

One Minute Makes a Difference

In a recent study published in Organization Science and discussed in a Harvard Business Review article, researchers tested how office workers could recover from interruptions. The researchers found that two things made a significant difference in successfully switching tasks: (1) how much time workers would have to complete the initial task once they returned to it; and (2) whether the workers made a quick plan for returning to the initial task. Researchers called this plan the “Ready-to-Resume Plan,” and a worker need spend only one minute creating this plan for it to be effective. This research fits with the “Memory for Goals” theory we wrote about in our Strategies for Coping with Interruptions blog post.

Here’s how researchers described the two approaches:

  • Memory for Goals (Medical Workers, 2016): “Memory for Goals maintains that the seconds right after the individual is made aware of the interruption — but before attention is directed to the intervening task — is an opportunity for the to-be-suspending-task to be strengthened in memory for later activation.” Researchers called this a task marker. A task marker can be something as simple as a mark on your checklist or a notation on your document where you left off.
  • Ready-to-Resume Plan (Office Workers, 2018): “This simple and brief practice of taking stock of where one stands on an interrupted task and briefly planning one’s return helps the brain feel more at ease with putting it aside and switching attention to an interrupting demand.” Researchers called this a Ready-to-Resume Plan. Just like a task marker, this can be a mark on a checklist or a notation on your document.

Under both approaches, when a person is interrupted, she should spend one minute writing down where she was in the initial task before starting work on the intervening task. When the worker does this, she can release the initial task and turn her full attention to the interrupting task, thus doing a better job at the interrupting task. And when the worker uses the task marker to return to the initial task, she can more effectively refocus her attention on the initial task and complete it with higher accuracy. This one-minute delay to create a plan or make a note before starting the interrupting task improves the outcome for both tasks.

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Complex Editing Is a Cycle of Task-Switching

Let’s apply this concept of the one-minute plan to your editing process. To edit effectively, you must be methodical, strategic, and focused. Editing involves anywhere from three to six levels of work ranging from exhaustive and in-depth substantive editing to skimming and superficial correcting—you must decide which type of edit you’re doing before you begin the work. Each type of edit includes different tasks and requires a different mindset. Attempting to do every type of edit at once will overwhelm your working memory. And, because each type of editing requires such different thinking and skills, attempting to perform all editing tasks at once effectively creates a continuous cycle of task-switching.

Try grouping your editing tasks and approaching them by moving from general to specific:

  • Start with substantive editing, which includes editing for clarity, organization, and structure
  • Next, work on sentence-level editing for style and flow
  • Finally, work on mechanical corrections and proofreading

Think of the groups like phases where you complete a phase before moving onto the next one. Each phase will have subsets of tasks within them. The subsets of tasks may function like a checklist for your review. It may take several cycles to work through your phases and checklists until you’re happy with the results.

Apply Task-Switching Theory to Editing

Once you’ve created your editing phases and checklists, you’re ready to work and successfully overcome interruptions. When you receive an email or text alert or a colleague otherwise intrudes on your work, delay shifting your attention to the notification or ask the colleague to wait one minute. During this minute, you can note where you left off on your checklist and make a plan to return to work after you’ve addressed the interrupting task. This will free your mind to completely focus on the interrupting task and facilitate an effortless return to work.

Edit for Clarity and Brevity with WordRake

There’s so much to do when creating a document for work. But no matter how busy you are, if you want to create effective documents, then editing for clarity and brevity should be on your business-writing checklist. To accomplish that task faster and more effectively, try WordRake. It’s a tireless automated editor with limitless focus. Sign up for a 7-day free trial today.

About the Author

Ivy B. Grey is the Chief Strategy & Growth Officer for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Transform anything you write to make you look and sound like an expert writer.

If your professional duties require writing, WordRake will tighten up your text and finds better ways to say what you want.

Become an Expert Writer Instantly

Our Story

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

In 2012, Gary and his team of engineers created WordRake editing software to help writers produce clear, concise, and effective prose. It runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggested changes appear in the familiar track-changes style. It saves time and gives confidence. Writing and editing has never been easier.