Shifting gears

Higher productivity is what we all strive towards. Ideally we would love to work at our peak level from the moment we start work to the moment we decide it’s time to pack up for the night.

We also acknowledge that mostly this isn’t possible, that every day has its peaks, troughs and interruptions that make it difficult. But one thing that is often overlooked is how difficult it can be to switch from one style of work task to another.

Switching tasks can be stressful

You would have noticed that your job entails a broad range of skills. For example, a manager may be required to analyse sales figures, write some detailed email correspondence, mediate an argument between members of a team, make a presentation to senior management or meet some customers. While this makes for a very stimulating (or stressful) working experience it is worth noting that some people really have difficulty moving from one style of task to the next.

Different mindsets required

The problem occurs when a completely different mindset is required. Anything that involves people skills and human interaction requires you to take in a lot of different behavioural cues. If you have just been poring over numbers, glued to a screen for hours or days, and suddenly you need to be at your best with people skills then your performance in this regard might be slightly compromised.

On a more extreme scale, if you are travelling for work you will realise how difficult it can be to adjust to a new time zone, or to squeeze tasks in at the end of the day in your hotel room while the hectic day of meetings takes its toll.

The people that shift gears better than others have an ability to completely switch off to the previous task and dedicate all of their mental faculties to the new task. Those who aren’t very skilled at this will be slightly distracted. If this continues across the day then it’s likely that feelings of stress and burnout can build.

If you have been deskbound, and now you are required to be on the road talking to clients each day, a fresh mindset is required.

Clear your mind with an “interval” activity

The best advice is to clear your mind. This might require some deep breathing or a brisk walk around the office, or getting yourself a glass of water, or making a brief phone call. As long as it’s a low-level task or “interval activity” that allows your mind to free itself of the previous task and move onto the next. It may seem ridiculous to do this, especially when you’re busy and have a lot to do, but if you try it there is no doubt you will notice improved concentration and reduced stress.

And to relieve the stress of your cluttered mind, make a quick list of all the things that you keep thinking of, to clear them away for later. Put them in a reliable place – a daily note book, a task list… so instead of rehashing all that you are not doing you see a clear list for later or for scheduling, even scheduling “thinking about” time as well as small or large tasks eg:

  • Develop thoughts re leadership strategy.
  • Determine strategy options.
  • Draft memo for staff appraisals.
  • Develop new pricelist.
  • Update brochure with new products.
  • Schedule monthly meetings.
  • Send replies to invites.
  • Follow up with XXX (attach their business card to note) re…
  • Make doctors appointment. 

Like most things, shifting gears is a skill that some people are very proficient with. It can take time to develop, but it can definitely be improved and refined. With enough practice you will become an expert at it.

Eve Ash is author of Rewrite your Life! And Rewrite Your Relationships! (available through and she has produced a wide range of professional development tools for online assessment and training.


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