The Switch Cost Effect

Jul 22, 2022

One of my morning routines which I have practiced for several years is becoming harder to maintain.  Despite setting aside time to read 10 pages each morning, my capacity for concentration has been showing signs of cracking.

It seems my ability to pay attention has become fractured.

With practice and consistency, I would have assumed that concentrating should become easier with time.

I decided to try and figure out why focusing lately feels like I am swimming against a current.

Based on some personal polling with my own network and web searches, it seems I am not alone.  The challenge of maintaining attention is not an aberration.  It has become the norm.

One study found that the average ability of college students to focus on one task was 1 min (60 seconds)!  Another study found office workers were only able to do this for 3 minutes.

My teenage son claims that he can watch YouTube videos and game, and listen to a book on tape simultaneously.  Neuroscientists disagree.  When we believe we are doing several things at once we really are juggling and switching back and forth between each activity.

In my case, when I read, I usually have my phone beside me and though my phone is set to “do not disturb”, I do hear that buzz when a text arrives.  My first inclination is to address the text so I can quickly move on with my reading. Despite a quick 10-second response or just reading the text, I’ve lost my attention just by virtue of the glance.

This is called “switching and reconfiguring” and it explains why my phone has not only distracted my attention, it has also robbed my focus because now I must find my last spot in my book and refocus and reread passages to remember what I was thinking!

It is taking me longer to read my 10 pages because of the switching.

It would appear I was deluded into thinking that addressing simple work texts and reading at the same time reflected a highly productive mental state.  Multitasking may evoke a mindset of productivity, yet single-mindedness is the path to high performance.

According to the cognitive load theory, our working memories have a limited capacity.  When we work on too many things simultaneously, the limitation is spread thin, and we end up feeling anxious and depleted.

We all have examples in our lives when we got into a flow and our efforts led to great results.  We were focused and in a grove.

This leads to the question:  What can I do to have more instances of flow in my daily activities?

Although the following recommendations seemed obvious, I followed them, and the results proved they worked for me.

1) Stick with one goal and mentally commit to achieving it.

2) Select something you care about. In my case, I realized finishing a book was taking priority over interest in the book/topic itself.  I now have unfinished books on my shelf.

3) Find the best time of day to be uninterrupted and when you have the best energy.  I moved up my reading time in the order of my morning rituals to ensure fewer distractions.

4) Keep the largest attention distraction tool of all time (your phone) in another room.

You may see these suggestions as only small tweaks however they may provide significant changes in your productivity and mental wellbeing.

What are you going to do to reclaim your mind?

Just like everything else, the longer you wait the harder it will get.


“Your life is the sum total of what you pay attention to – and paying attention is energy heavy.  But because the modern workplace reveres multitasking, seeing it as the path to productivity, it may feel like the more thing you pay attention to, the better”. Nick Hobson, behavioral scientist
In a state of flow, maintaining focused attention on absorbing activities requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources to be directed to the task at hand.  Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winner in economic science

Karl Choltus

Deep thinking Canadian sharing thoughts created in the shower.