E11 – Don’t Be a Cabbage Butterfly – Stop Task Switching for Better Time Management

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Short and Sticky Stories
Short and Sticky Stories
E11 - Don't Be a Cabbage Butterfly - Stop Task Switching for Better Time Management
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E11 – Don’t Be a Cabbage Butterfly – Stop Task Switching for Better Time Management.

You start a task and another one comes up. You do that, and another one comes up. So, you then do that. Until – you guessed it – another one comes up! You are task switching.

This, according to the time management gurus, adds 50% to the original task. In short, by switching concentration and having to adapt your thought processes from task to task, you are adding 50% of the time to it. This is because your concentration needs to adapt. Different skills are required to complete different tasks. It will take time to adapt your thinking and understand the new task.

According to the Harvard Business Review, task switching can take up to 20 minutes. Managing emails being the biggest culprit for creating distractions.

We are losing vital minutes from our already busy days.

A Purple Cabbage, sat within a bright yellow background
‘Don’t be a Cabbage’, the idea of task switching is problematic in a work environment.

Listen to this podcast to stop task switching and losing these vital minutes. Focus on what is really important. Remember why you’re on the payroll and consider the seven big things that help get your job done.

Read the Transcript Below:

“You’re jumping from one task to another all day long, switching between this and that and the next thing to do. My name is Darren Smith and you’re at the Home of Sticky Learning. We’re going to talk about Short and Sticky Stories.”

“When I was about six years old, I remember my dad took me into the garden every Saturday. He was very proud of his garden. We only had a small garden and it had a veg patch. Two levels to the small garden and we’d go out there and on a Saturday it was that father-son bonding time. I remember I had those red wellies on that I think you bought from Woolworths called ladybird. Anyway. My dad and I are in the garden and he’s proud of what he’s achieved in that garden. I guess for him it was a way of reducing stress from what was quite a tough and demanding job.”


“His veg patch was something he was particularly proud of. Imagine a six-foot by three-foot veg patch and it grew carrots, runner beans, cabbages. Now, don’t tell him, but the runner beans, you could have used them for dental floss. They were stringing and every Sunday we would have those runner beans because dad had grown them and the kids would eat them on wait mode because they were stringing. But let’s come back to the cabbages. The reason I wanted to tell you this story was because in time management, we have a term that we call the cabbage butterfly.”

“Imagine my dad’s got on his cabbage patch 12 cabbages and he grabs me, grabs my hand, and he says, “There you go.” Well, we used to dig around the cabbages. So I’m digging around the cabbages with my plastic little fork, my plastic little spade. What I said to him is, “Dad, these ones have got holes in them.” And yeah, of course, the white cabbage butterfly had eaten the cabbage.”

“Now, what it tends to do is it eats a leaf of the cabbage and there are holes of see-in-it and then it looks up and sees another cabbage and flies over to that one and it’s the next cabbage. And whilst it’s chewing on that tasty morsel, it then looks up and sees the next cabbage. And this is the metaphor we use through time management because it’s very, very similar to what we do as knowledge workers, as people in offices. We start a task and then another task comes up and we do that. We start that one and then another task comes up. Them, we do that.”

Task Switching

“Now, the biggest problem is that task switching, according to the gurus, costs us 50% of that task. By switching from task to task, you are adding 50% of the time to it. This is because your concentration needs to move from one piece of skill of a task to another where you might need a different skill and you need to understand that task in a different way. Harvard Business Review did a piece of research where they’re talking about the amount of time from switching from one task to another as being up to 20 minutes.”

“Now, I’m sure that’s right because they’re Harvard Business Review, but let’s say even for you and I, it’s only a few minutes. It’s still a vital few minutes we’re losing between each task in what is an already very, very busy day. So why are we doing this? Well, we’re doing it for the endorphin rush. We’re doing it because we like starting something new, getting our teeth into it. But then something more interesting comes along, and the biggest culprit that drives this behaviour is email.”

Email Management

“I’ve talked long and hard about other ways you can deal with email management in other podcasts, so we’ll not tackle that for now. For right now, all we need to know is that task switching consumes a lot of our time and we call it cabbage butterfly. That’s eating one cabbage, looking up and seeing another one. You’ve got email management, which is something we need to fix. And the Hare and the Tortoise Tool, which you can read or hear about, will help. My purpose here is to help you focus on what’s really important.”

“Putting the emails to the side, what we need to do is start with a blank sheet of paper and that blank sheet of paper, we need to write the seven big things that will help us get our job done. Now, as a piece that comes just before this, which is, why are you on the payroll? An easy question to ask, and in my experience, 99% of people cannot answer it. Maybe that’s one for a separate podcast, just for now you need to be able to answer, why are you on the payroll? And if it’s not something to do with the bottom line, then I’m going to challenge that you’re probably wrong. And then that target you come up with needs to be smart.”


“So let’s move on to projects and having the seven big things that will make the biggest difference to why you’re on the payroll. Take a sheet of paper and list down maybe more than seven to start with, but certainly, put a list of the big things. Now, you all know what they are because they’re the things that you’re putting off. You’re busy doing the shallow work, which is moving from one task to another, getting some almost superficial things done, largely email. What we’re trying to do here is help you focus on the big stuff, the things that really make a difference to your job.”

“Those things that when you walk into your appraisal, should you have one, in the year you can say, “I’ve nailed this. I’ve nailed that and I have nailed some other things.” And they are big things that will make a difference because no one’s going to thank you for getting through your emails all day long. Now, there might be some people that chase you and some people who shout or maybe if you’re in line manager, but the thing that they’ll really thank you for, particularly your line manager, is nailing while you’re on the payroll. And that has to be done by doing the big work, the deep work, the project work.”

Back to the Piece of Paper

“Let’s come back to our piece of paper. You’ve written several more big things that you need to get done. We’re talking about a horizon of three to six months maybe, depends on your job. Let’s then filter that into seven big things that we need to get done. You’ve got number one, project ABC, number two, project DEF, and so on. All those things that you’ve been putting off because they’re too big and too ugly and you’re busy, but you’re busy getting all this other stuff done, which is shallow work, and this is the big stuff.”

“Now we’ve got our seven projects, the big things that will make the biggest difference to why we’re on the payroll and what people pay us to do. The second piece I’d like us to do is under or next to each one of those projects, I’d like you to write a simple practical action, i.e., what are you going to do next? Let’s take number one, which is project ABC. The simple next action might be, book a meeting with Bob, or review the Excel spreadsheet or my map, the objectives of this project. What are we trying to achieve?”

Rolling a Snowball

“Now what we’ve got is our seven big projects and a simple next step for each, and that will begin the snowball. Rolling a snowball down the hill, the actions will start to build because as you go to that meeting until you have that chat with Bob or you write the objectives, the next step will come to you slightly easier, and then you’re on your way with your projects. The third and last step is that you need to incorporate the projects into your time management system. And yes, a lot of people say, ‘But I don’t have a time management system,’ but you do, because you turned up for work and you’re getting stuff done. So you do have a system, whether it’s effective or not, only you will know. All I can say is it can a lot more effective than it currently is.”

The Last Piece…

“The last piece that I want you to incorporate into your time management is to review your seven projects at the end of the week. This is probably lasting on a Friday. It could trip over and be the first thing on a Monday. It doesn’t matter as long as you do it, and it should only take about 20 minutes. And what you’re doing is going through each of your seven projects that are the deep work that makes the big difference to why you’re on the payroll and you’re looking to see whether you have nudged them forward. And we’re talking about a nudge, not a huge amount of work at this stage, but you are nudging them forward, which is a big difference to what you were doing before, which was trying to do almost anything else and task switching.”

“This is the big stuff. So on a Friday afternoon or a Monday, I’d like you to take 20 minutes, maybe book a meeting with yourself for those 20 minutes. The Pomodoro Technique is really good for this. I’ll leave you to look up Pomodoro Technique. And what you’re doing is reviewing and assessing whether you are moving forward each of those seven projects. And if you’re not, why aren’t you? What are you going to do next? We’re not going to accept stumbling blocks of you just don’t know, because if you don’t know then you should have asked someone for some help. These are your seven projects that will make a big difference. You’ve written them down and identified them. That’s a big step forward. You’ve written a simple and practical next step for each and you’re reviewing them on a weekly basis.”

Final Thoughts

“In summary, the metaphor we use in time management for people who move from task to task is cabbage butterfly. We know that this has a huge cost to it and we know that the biggest challenge is getting the big stuff done, the things that we put off because they’re big and ugly. As Brian Tracy would say, the frogs. Eat That Frog is an excellent book to read.”

“You now have incorporated into a time management system only 20 minutes, but an excellent 20 minutes a week where you’re going to see whether you’re moving these things forward. This will be your prick of conscience where you are pushing and poking yourself to say, “I know I need to get this big stuff done in these 20 minutes.” Hopefully, you’re putting a tick against the small steps that you’ve done for each of the seven projects. This was Short and Sticky Stories by MBM. My name is Darren Smith, and I look forward to creating the next podcast for you. Take care.”

For further tips and information, you can take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Time Management Skills and our Time Management Skills YouTube Channel.  Also, take a look at our award-winning blog where you can read more tips on time management.

We are delighted to announce that our Podcast: Personal Development Tips told through Short and Sticky Stories was selected as one of the Top 10 Negotiation Podcasts on the web by Feedspot. 

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