As a modern worker, you have to split your attention across different tasks throughout the day — answering emails, checking Slack, fielding questions from colleagues, reading industry news. Moving from disparate task to disparate task like this is called context switching. And while switching tasks is necessary, the number of times you shift contexts may be wrecking your productivity.
While you can’t avoid context switching altogether, you can reduce the impact it has on your well-being, productivity, and quality of work by prioritizing your most important work and reducing distractions.
What is context switching?
Context switching is our tendency to shift from one unrelated task to another. According to the American Psychological Association, switching refers to the change in our “mental control settings" when we move to a new task.
Our ability to switch tasks is remarkable — it’s how we’re able to adapt our behavior to our environment with ease. Researchers call it cognitive flexibility, and the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research said it’s essential to function in daily life. Context switching is what allows us, as Anna Trafton, writer at MIT News Office describes, to drive 65 mph on a highway before exiting to a local street where we must drive 25.
The term context switching was originally used in computing to describe the switching of the CPU from one state of a process to another. Computers struggled when they switched tasks, incurring a context switch cost. Today, we use multitasking and context switching to speak about human behaviors. And the same switching penalty applies to humans: we incur a context switch cost, which takes the form of longer completion times or more errors, according to Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Although the use of context switching to speak about human productivity is fairly recent, research into the costs of task switching stretches back to 1927, when psychologist Arthur Jersild examined the task-switch paradigm. Switching tasks caused “shift effects,” and the “cost of shift is loss in efficiency,” suggested Jersild. Task switching also places intense demands on our working memory because we are shifting goals (I need to complete this now) and activating new rules (this is what I need to do to complete this task).
The problem with context switching
Context switching may be a cognitive benefit, but it creates problems at work because we’re rarely ever able to focus on just one task the entire day.
Switching costs eat into focused, productive time
In the modern workplace, we’re bombarded with possible context switches: on any given day, you’ll read industry news online, respond to emails, or divide your focus across multiple projects. A field study in Rethinking Productivity in Software Engineering showed developers switched tasks 13 times per hour and spent only six minutes on a task before switching to another.
The problem is, typically, you’re still thinking about a previous task when you switch to a new one at work, a phenomenon known as attention residue. You end up paying a switching penalty: impaired focus. Once you start working, the new task doesn’t get your full attention because you’re still partially focused on the previous piece of work.
Another cost is the overhead involved with juggling multiple projects. Carnegie Mellon University researcher Todd Waits explores Gerald Weinberg’s popular theory that team members lose about 20% of their cognitive capacity to context switching when they work on multiple projects: “...switching between projects requires an operational overhead for the team member to figure out where he or she left off, what needs to be done, how that work fits in the project....”
WFH increases context switching potential
Working from home comes with new interruptions. Remote workers deal with “ambient distractions,” like “ringing doorbells, noisy pets, and interrupting children,” according to the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection. Each of these disruptions has the potential to pull you away from your work. Back in 2005, researchers from the University of California led a landmark context switching study that found people take more than 20 minutes to get back to a task after they were interrupted.
Wendy M. Pfeiffer, the chief information officer at cloud computing company Nutanix, said working from home increases context switching: “We now understand the possibility of a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ phase in our remote workers: we could accidentally create a mode in which people regularly context switch, always changing from one work mode to another, leading to high energy costs.”
How to reduce the cost of context switching
Since context switching is essential in the workplace, you need a set of tactics to do it the right way. Your approach to task-switching will either hinder or help your efforts to do your best work.
Evaluate your context switches
The first step is figuring out how and when you switch contexts.
Identify and control your active switches
Pay attention to the way you switch contexts throughout the day. Are you frequently taking phone calls, responding to emails, or getting pulled into ad-hoc meetings while you’re trying to focus on a work problem? Establish workflows and routines that limit this kind of switching.
In The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, Dave Crenshaw makes the distinction between passive switches and active switches. Passive switches are initiated by someone else. A knock at the door or, in an office setting, someone walking to your desk are examples of passive switches. Active context switches, on the other hand, are initiated by you and, therefore, are entirely under your control. For example, when you stop working on a product brief to check a reference online.
A research study of Microsoft employees and other workers found participants were most likely to switch contexts while they waited for a build to finish, shifting to email or code review. Instead of just randomly checking Zendesk tickets for customer feedback, make it a habit and carve out time for it consistently.
Match your calendar to your priorities
If your schedule is jammed with Zoom meetings that aren’t directly related to your most important work, it’s time to review your commitments. Look for opportunities to eliminate or reduce context switching in your calendar.
One solution is to make sure you’re spending the most time on your important priorities. Turn your calendar into your to-do list to make sure you’re not scrambling to get to all of your important tasks. Decline or reschedule events that split your focus and trigger task switching unnecessarily. Once you’ve determined your priorities, build routines and habits around them.
We use Habits to dedicate time on our calendar for the things we need to do regularly.
You’ll be able to say the amount of time you need for your habit and how often you need to do it. If something else comes up, Reclaim adjusts to find another time. You can also schedule your habits based on what's important that week. Let's say you want more time for “Customer Support”; “Exercise” may be less important. When you bump up your “Customer Support” habit in Reclaim, it will prioritize scheduling it above other habits.
Create slots for technology use
If you want to limit unnecessary context switching, you have to be intentional about managing email and instant messaging. Book limited times during your day to use technology — like checking your email or phone notifications.
The average U.S. worker is interrupted 13.7 times per day by digital technologies, like Slack and email, according to a 2019 Workfront survey. People spend more than three hours a day checking work email, according to a 2019 Adobe study. At the same time, regular and timely communication is critical. A Microsoft study into finding the ideal time to switch tasks said solutions to context switching must account for teamwork and daily collaboration.
The answer lies in scheduling your interruptions. Review the rhythm of your communication. Determine when you’re checking your email, Slack, or social media accounts.
At Reclaim, we use daily slots to catch up on our emails. This approach makes sure we never miss anything while protecting our focus time during the day.
Similarly, pause your Slack notifications when you’re in deep work mode. We also sync our calendars with our Slack status to give our colleagues context about what we’re working on, or whether we're in a Zoom meeting.
Use time blocks to group tasks by function
Batch tasks by function or objective. For example, if coming up with new features is a priority, organize your day to batch reviewing user feedback alongside meeting with the support team.
In his Thinking Through newsletter, programmer Mayank Verma describes productivity advice he received early in his career: “When I was a junior engineer, one of the best advice I got from a seasoned principal engineer was to batch things...Batching them by function increases productivity as it minimizes context switching cost.” A team of researchers from the University of California, University of Houston, Texas A & M University found when people batched their email, they used fewer “anger words” in email.
Use a tactic like the Pomodoro method to work through similar tasks in focused bursts. This technique helps to achieve two goals: reducing multitasking and practicing focusing on a single task.
Of course, a perfectly designed time-blocking schedule isn’t always practical in the real world. We’ve found flexible time blocks are more realistic than static, rigid time blocks. When you block time on your schedule, your calendar is packed with busy blocks, and you can end up spending tons of time negotiating with people.
First, decide what you have to do, how long it will take, and when it needs to get done. Then, Reclaim creates and adjusts time blocks for you as meetings come in, changing your availability as your day fills up.
These blocks will appear as free time on your calendar and will be visible only to you. When the due date approaches or your day fills up, the time blocks will switch to busy.
Build buffers and microbreaks into your workday
Brief breaks between tasks and meetings can reduce context switching costs.
Microbreaks lead to greater concentration at work, according to The SAGE encyclopedia of industrial and organizational psychology. These short breaks can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Take a microbreak between tasks and make a brief note of what you still need to finish. Writing down what you need to do when you resume a task can also ease the cognitive load of the transition, according to Organization Science.
When you attend a meeting or event, make sure you build a buffer slot into it. Auto-block buffer times between different tasks.
Task switch without sacrificing your productive time
You likely need to juggle multiple tasks at home and at work, but context switching doesn’t need to sabotage your productivity.
Be intentional about how you approach context switching and find the time and energy to do your best work.
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