Why Context Switching is Bad (and How to Fix It)

By Sivan Kaspi, Updated on September 19, 2023, 10 min read
Context Switching tips

Balancing multiple tasks in a day is common for many people, whether it involves writing emails, taking calls, attending meetings, or creating reports. However, if you do not manage your time effectively, you may find yourself constantly switching between tasks and not making any progress at the end of the day. This is called “context switching” and it can significantly impact productivity. In this article, we will examine the concept of context switching, the reasons why it is harmful to productivity, the reasons why we engage in it, and ways to address it.


What is Context Switching?

Context switching, which is a term originally used in computer science to describe the process of storing and continuing a task at a later time, allows multiple tasks to share a single processor and enables multitasking by switching between programs.


In the context of work, context switching refers to the act of switching focus between tasks. For example, if you are working on a proposal and then stop to check an email, you are engaging in context switching.


However, unlike computers that are designed to handle context switching, the human brain is not as efficient at it. Even a brief task switch like checking an email can have a negative impact on productivity.


Continuous context switching can lead to a variety of issues, including a lack of focus, loss of energy, confusion about priorities, and even a decline in cognitive function. Therefore, it is important to try to minimize context switching in order to maintain productivity.


Why is Context Switching Bad for Productivity?

Context Switching


Getting tasks done as soon as they hit your desk may seem like an efficient way to do things. Similarly, multitasking can ostensibly look like a time-saving approach. However, they are both examples of context switching and are very harmful. Let’s take a look at why.

  1. It pulls focus for longer than you think

    You’re writing a report; a message comes in, you read it, reply, and get back to work. Of course, there is a couple of minutes of distraction caused by the message itself, but does it pull that much focus? Actually, yes.


    The lead researcher of a study into distraction by the University of California Irvine found that it took participants “an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task” at hand when context switched. That means just a few context switches a day could be losing you hours of work—far more than the few seconds it may initially seem.

  2. It diminishes cognitive function

    Not only can context switching distract, but it can actually diminish cognitive function. The brain can only deal with so many tasks at a time, and just like a computer will start to lag if you open too many programs or your thousandth Chrome tab, our minds also start to slow when faced with too many processes.


    A study by the University of London found that those who multitasked (like checking messages or an email) during a cognitive task showed IQ score declines that were equal to staying up all night or smoking marijuana. Men in the study showed drops so significant it put them on par with an 8-year-old child.


    Is this the kind of mental state that is conducive to getting good work done?

  3. It's a drain on energy

    While the human brain makes up only about 2% of a person’s body weight, it accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use. It is an energy-hungry organ at the best of times, but context switching means more cognitive processing, which means more energy used.


    Add to this the dips and dives in brain chemicals (such as hits of dopamine from social media), and those context switches start to be a real drain on your energy for the day. This leaves less energy for essential tasks as well as just your day-to-day living, reducing productivity as well as potentially cutting into your social life!

  4. It clouds priorities

    Continually switching from task to task and project to project leaves us no time to step back and see the bigger picture. Add in the stress from always feeling behind (since you can’t focus on any one task), and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever take a breath and reassess what really needs to be done.


    Context switching pushes us into a mode whereby we are scrambling to simply get the task in front of us done, rather than taking the time we need to properly prioritize. Poorly organized tasks will lead to missed opportunities, bad workflows, and eventually poorer productivity for entire teams.

If Context Switching is So Bad, Why Do We Do It?

Context Switching


So at this point, you may be asking yourself: If context switching is so bad, why is it such an easy pattern to fall into? Unfortunately, there are some human traits as well as common work cultures that push us towards it.


Always on Mentality is Encouraged

In many workplaces, there is an expectation that employees will be “always-on” and responsive to any messages at any time, even outside of work. This culture often leads to context switching, as employees feel pressured to interrupt their current tasks to respond to messages, especially if they are from a higher-up. Research from the University of California Irvine found that this type of task switching occurs across all professions, regardless of an individual’s position or role. This suggests that the pressure to be constantly connected and responsive is a widespread issue in the modern workplace.


Life Is Longer When Experiences Are New

As humans, we generally like new things and find the humdrum repugnant. Our brains are stimulated by new information, situations and experiences, so we crave and encourage them. This is why you can often find yourself context switching with no external stimulation at all—you’ll find yourself opening an app to scroll for new content.


When experiencing new things, our brains serve up pleasure chemicals, and at the same time, form more memories than if they were staring at the same thing as always (like that word document). This draws out our perception of time, making life seem longer, and during those times, more pleasurable—is it any surprise that we context switch?



Modern Platforms Want Your Attention

Human brains are wired to catch movement and follow things that twinkle in the bushes. In the modern age, this is exactly what apps deliver—blinking lights and half-visible messages. They are designed to capture and keep our attention and become increasingly aggressive in their pursuit as the competition for our focus intensifies.


Remember that many of the apps that people procrastinate on, such as social media platforms, generate their revenue by keeping you as engaged as possible for as long as possible in order to deliver ads. Every ping and notification is designed to make you context switch from the work at hand.


Unfortunately, even some of the most popular workplace apps, which are explicitly designed to help you be more productive, use similar UX principles, which can result in just as much context switching. Just think about the last time you were distracted by a Slack chat popping up or an update from your calendar.


How does context switching affect the creative process for design teams?

Context switching can have particularly negative effects on creativity for design teams. When designers are constantly switching between tasks, it can be difficult for them to fully immerse themselves in the creative process and generate new ideas. Here are a few ways in which context switching can harm creativity:

  1. It interrupts the flow state: The flow state is a psychological state in which a person becomes fully immersed in an activity, losing track of time and distractions. This state is essential for creative thinking and problem-solving. However, context switching can interrupt the flow state and make it difficult for designers to fully engage with their work.

  2. It drains energy and focus: Context switching requires a lot of mental effort, and this can drain a designer’s energy and focus. When designers are tired or distracted, it can be harder for them to come up with creative solutions to problems.

  3. It leads to shallow thinking: When designers are constantly switching between tasks, they may not have the time or energy to delve deeply into a problem and come up with creative solutions. This can lead to shallow thinking and a lack of original ideas.

In order to support creativity within a design team, it’s important to minimize context switching as much as possible. This might involve setting specific times for checking emails and notifications, using tools to block distractions, or adopting time management techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique to stay focused on a task. By reducing context switching, designers can improve their ability to generate creative ideas and solve complex problems.

Spike’s digital workspace is designed to help designers and creative teams minimize context switching and improve their productivity. Here are a few ways in which Spike’s digital workspace helps prevent context switching:

  1. It consolidates all project-related communication and tasks in one place: With Spike’s digital workspace, designers can access all the information and tools they need for a project in one place, rather than constantly switching between different apps and programs. This helps reduce the number of context switches and keeps designers focused on their work.

  2. It allows for easy communication and collaboration: Spike’s digital workspace includes features such as group chat and video conferencing, which allow designers to communicate and collaborate with team members without having to switch contexts.

  3. It provides tools for managing tasks and priorities: Spike’s digital workspace includes features such as to-do lists and project management tools, which help designers stay organized and focused on their most important tasks.

Overall, Spike is designed to help designers and creative teams stay focused on their work and minimize context switching, which can lead to improved productivity and creativity.


What Are Some Ways to Tackle Context Switching?

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Here are some strategies you can use to address context switching and improve your productivity:

  1. Identify the sources of context switching: Take a moment to reflect on what tasks or activities are causing you to switch between contexts. Are you being interrupted by notifications from your phone or computer? Do you have too many tasks on your to-do list? Identifying the sources of context switching can help you come up with targeted solutions.

  2. Set specific times for checking emails and messages: Instead of constantly checking your inbox throughout the day, designate specific times for checking and responding to emails and messages. This can help reduce the number of interruptions and allow you to stay focused on your tasks.

  3. Use tools to block distractions: There are tools available that can help block distractions, such as website blockers or apps that silence notifications on your phone or computer. Using these tools can help you stay focused on your work and minimize context switching.

  4. Use the Pomodoro Technique: The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that involves working for a set amount of time (usually 25 minutes) and then taking a short break (usually 5 minutes). This can help you stay focused on a task and minimize the temptation to switch contexts.

  5. Practice mindfulness: Being mindful of your actions and thoughts can help you stay focused on the task at hand. When you catch yourself switching contexts, take a moment to refocus your attention on the task you were working on.

  6. Set clear priorities: Having clear priorities can help you stay focused on the most important tasks and minimize the temptation to switch contexts. Make a list of your tasks and rank them in order of importance to help guide your work.

  7. Consolidate apps with Spike

    More apps mean more notifications, but also the necessity of jumping between software to get things done. A business, for example, may require emails, instant messaging, video calls, voice messages, and more. Moreover, these tools will often be accessed through completely different platforms from one another, which means context switching is unavoidable.
    Even “combined” solutions such as Microsoft Office 365 make you switch from Outlook to Teams every time you want to make a video call.
    If you want to cut back on context switching, try instead to consolidate your tools into a single app. Spike, for example, offers all the services mentioned above as well as Tasks, To-Do Lists, Online Notes, an integrated Calendar, and much more. Never again will you need to switch apps, lose focus, and let your productivity suffer.

Consolidate your tools into a single app and cut back on context switching


Context Switching: Let’s Focus In

In order to combat the negative effects of context switching, it’s important to identify the reasons behind it and take steps to minimize it. This might involve setting specific times for checking emails, using tools to block distractions, or setting clear priorities to stay focused on the most important tasks. By reducing context switching, we can improve our productivity and get more done in less time.


Luckily, the tools and practices to combat context switching are already out there and can be applied to your work and business today. Just remember that ultimately, the fewer distractions (both internal and external), the less context switching you’ll suffer, and the more productive you’ll be.


For more information on context switching and other workplace productivity tips, check out the Spike blog here. Alternatively, tweet us @SpikenowHQ and tell us how you stay focused at work.

Sivan Kaspi Sivan is the Director of Marketing at Spike. A firm believer that the right kind of tech actually helps us use it less, she is passionate about tools that improve our lives. She starts off each morning reviewing her Spike feed over a good cup of coffee.

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