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Context Switching Is Destroying Your Workday: Here's How to Fix It
April 12, 2024

As a modern worker, you split your attention across different tasks all day long — answering emails, checking Slack, reviewing updates, and trying to find time to start that task your boss needs ASAP. This moving from disparate task to task is called context switching. And while switching tasks is necessary, the number of times you shift context may be wrecking your productivity.

So since you can’t avoid context switching altogether, you can reduce its negative impact on your productivity by reducing harmful distractions and prioritizing your most important tasks.

What is context switching?

Context switching is the act of shifting your attention between different tasks, projects, or thought processes, frequently leading to disruptions in focus and workflow.  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 between multiple processes is remarkable — this cognitive flexibility is how we can easily adapt our behavior to our environment, an essential function of daily life. Context switching is what allows us, for example, to drive 65 mph on a highway before exiting on a local street where we must drive 25.

The term context switching was originally used in computing to describe multitasking operating system switching from one state of a running 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 this same switching penalty applies to us – our context switching cost may be longer completion times, additional errors, or dips in our productivity.

Top problems with context switching

Do you ever have so much on your plate you keep jumping from one thing to the next to try to get it all done? While it’s hard to focus on one task at a time, especially when we’re slammed, context switching triggers a significant cost on your productivity:

Let’s walk through the top 3 context switching costs professionals are facing today.

1. Context switching kills your productivity

Think you can move between tasks without skipping a beat? Think again. It turns out that developers switch tasks 13 times/hour and only spend 6 minutes on a task before switching to the next – and interruptions from coworkers are the most costly offender.

The problem is, you’re still thinking about your previous task after you switch to the new task –  a phenomenon known as attention residue. And the switching penalty you end up paying – impaired focus. Even though you’re working on the new task, it doesn’t get your full attention because you’re still partially focused on your previous work.

"Context switching is a huge loss for productivity day-to-day. One of the biggest issues across our devices is the need to switch between productivity applications or tools you're using for work. It is really important to retain focus on what you are moving to next; one of the common issues is the vague direction when moving between applications. 

A methodology that maps well for context switching is the Pomodoro Technique, this 25-minute timer with a 5-minute break can be a much more focused way of staying on task without getting distracted across your work day. These stints are focused and intentional, allowing you to constantly refer back to why you are doing the work at hand."

- Francesco D'Alessio of Tool Finder

2. Remote work increases context switching potential

Now that 16% of companies are fully remote in 2023, and 28% of employees are in a hybrid work model – productivity is often super high, despite the endless queue of interruptions. 

Remote workers deal with ambient distractions, like “ringing doorbells, noisy pets, and interrupting children,” which weren’t an issue when they used to work in an office. But, more importantly, remote and hybrid workers also find themselves way more interruptible because their teams have rapid-fire communications over Slack. Employees feel pressured to answer every message immediately to prove they're "working" – and this pressure unfortunately even extends outside their working hours.

Each of these interruptions has the potential to pull you from your work. And if it takes over 20 minutes to get back to a task after being interrupted, you can see how even just a few distractions can really make a dent in your workday.

"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."

- Wendy M. Pfeiffer, chief information officer at Nutanix

3. Multitasking – not a good thing 

People often wonder if context switching is just another term for multitasking. Well, that's not quite the case. As we mentioned, context switching is when you switch your focus from one task to another. On the other hand, multitasking is when we attempt to handle multiple tasks at once, like writing an email, reviewing a document, and checking Slack all at the same time. 

While you may think you’re maximizing your productivity, our brains actually aren't quite designed for multitasking. In fact, only 2.5% of people can multitask effectively. So for the other 97.5% of us, task switching back-and-forth between activities is actually plummeting our productivity by as much as 40%

So even though context switching may be unavoidable in some scenarios, the same cannot be said of multitasking – which you should avoid altogether.

10 ways to combat context switching

So how do we reduce context switching? You’ve got to be super intentional about planning and protecting productive time for your tasks, while limiting interruptions throughout your workweek.

1. Identify your context switches: What’s causing you to switch between tasks and projects throughout the day – emails, ad-hoc meetings, or Slack messages? Identify both your top passive and active switches so you can start defending yourself from them throughout the workday.

2. Set your priorities: If you're wondering where to get started, and waste time every day sifting through your to-do list, you need to prioritize your tasks. Instead of context switching through multiple 'important' tasks at once, use an approach like the Eisenhower Matrix to help determine which tasks are most important vs. urgent.

3. Block time for your tasks: Once you know which tasks are most important, schedule time to get them done. Time blocking your tasks will help you defend the time you need for work, and protect that time from interruptions from incoming schedulers.

4. Set aside time to check Slack & email: Instead of jumping tabs every 5 minutes to check your email and Slack, set aside short 15-minute blocks every morning, midday, and afternoon to catch up on these communications to limit unnecessary context switching. 

5. Set DND in Slack: Prevent interruptions over Slack by automatically syncing your Slack status to your calendar so coworkers can see when you’re busy in a meeting, task session, or personal commitment. You can even set do not disturb for certain events to completely block out distractions.

6. Batch similar tasks together: If you have a ton of tasks to do for the same project, try task batching them together to complete in a single working session. This will help you stay focused on the single project, work through task dependencies, and prevent context switching while you work.

7. Try day theming: If you’re managing multiple big projects, try day theming to dedicate specific days to specific projects and tasks. This can help stay focused throughout the entire day, and avoid the temptation to task-switch to an unrelated project.

8. Schedule breaks into your workday: Instead of taking ad-hoc breaks throughout the day, schedule yourself brief breaks after task sessions and meetings. This will give you the time you need for a bio break, coffee refill, or personal call, with a deadline you can stick to so these necessary interruptions can all be grouped together in-between work sessions, not during. 

9. Integrations: If you’re spending a ton of time bouncing between apps to find all the information you need for your task work, you’re opening yourself up to hundreds of context switching opportunities. Stay on task and improve your efficiency by integrating your key apps together so you’re not constantly moving from one tool to the next.

10. No-meeting days: Hard to get into a task when you’re constantly preparing for your next meeting? Create a no-meeting day for your team so you can reduce meeting-related context switching, and defend more focus time on your calendar.

Get your distractions under control

Even though you’re juggling numerous tasks at work, context switching isn’t the way to dominate your task list. While it’s not totally unavoidable, it can negatively affect your productivity by disrupting your focus and increasing your stress. But by prioritizing your most important work, blocking time for tasks, and limiting interruptions, you can significantly cut the costs of context-switching. 

Did we miss anything? How do you manage context switching throughout your week? Tweet us @reclaimai to let us know!

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