Most people’s work involves balancing multiple tasks in a day, whether writing emails, taking calls, going to meetings, or drafting reports. However, unless you manage your time correctly, you can quickly start jumping from one task to another and find yourself no further ahead at the end of the day than you were at the start.
This jumping about is known as context switching, and it has the potential to cause serious productivity issues. Here, we explore what context switching is, why it is quite so bad for productivity, why we context switch, and how to fix it. Read on to learn more.
What is Context Switching?
Context switching is originally a computer term and refers to the storage of a process called up and continued later. This allows multiple processes (aka tasks) to share a single CPU (the brain of your computer) and deliver a multitasking system—hopping from one program to another.
When it comes to your work, the meaning is the same. When you’re working on one task, switch your focus to another, then return to the first. A simple example might be when you’re drafting a proposal, hear the ‘bing’ of an email notification, quickly check it, then return to your work.
The problem is, you’re not a computer! While a purpose-built CPU can handle context switching, the ever-more-powerful but oh-so-fickle human brain cannot. As a result, even a short, seemingly non-intrusive task switch like checking an email delivers a minor hit to your productivity.
As such, falling into a pattern of context switching can take a severe toll on your work. It can lead to damaged focus, loss of energy, clouded priorities, and even diminished cognitive function, among other problems.
Why is Context Switching Bad for Productivity?
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.
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.
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?
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!
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?
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
Many workplaces encourage an “always-on” mentality – expecting immediate responses to any little message whilst at work, and increasingly outside of work as well! This kind of attitude in the workplace inevitably causes context switching.
Employees feel pressured to drop what they’re doing and respond to messages, especially if the message comes from someone higher up. That said, it seems to happen across the board. The University of California Irvine research mentioned earlier, for example, found no significant difference among professions when it came to task switching—manager or not.
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.
What Are Some Ways to Tackle Context Switching?
We’ve looked at what context switching is, why it happens, and what makes it so damaging to productivity, so now it’s time to cover the most important point—how to fix context switching. Let’s take a look at some of the best practices and most useful tools to tackle context switching.
Break your time into blocks
The first step in fighting context switching is organizing your time. It can be easy to jump from one task to another when you just have a general to-do list with no real plan or order. Time blocking involves slicing your day into periods of deep focus, where you have no distractions, and open blocks for things such as meetings or responding to emails.
You can introduce this to your entire team or company using a Staggered Calendar to improve context switching.
Batch your tasks
While context switching is generally damaging to productivity, the negative impact is lessened when the context doesn’t change too much. If the interruption matches the topic of your current task, it can be beneficial. This is why one of the best ways to tackle context switching is by batching tasks.
Task batching is simple enough, and it just involves putting similar tasks together on your daily list. This could be done according to account or project as well as type. For example, replying to all emails at the start of the day.
However, an essential part of batching, and especially prioritizing, tasks is keeping them somewhere other than in your mind. Just the thought of having other things to do can be enough to incite some soft context switching, which is why the next point is vital.
Put tasks out of mind
Most of the problems of context switching occur not because you are physically doing a different task but because you are mentally focussed on another task (however briefly). As such, simply knowing that you have other things to do can be enough to switch your focus to other topics.
So, make sure you have a full To-Do List and Task management system in which to keep your work! Spike, for example, allows you to create trackable Tasks and daily To-Do Lists right within your inbox so you can focus on the task at hand and clear all the other mental clutter that may force a context switch.
It can be tricky to clear your mind of other work at first, but soon you’ll find yourself not worrying about anything except what’s in front of you and not even remembering what else is on your plate until you look at your list. Don’t worry, this is good—it means you are focused!
Cut down on distractions
The major driving force of context switching is distraction, both internal and external, digital and physical. You’ve already dealt with the internal distractions by putting tasks out of mind, so let’s turn our attention to the digital and physical distractions that crop up in every workplace.
- Physical Distractions
Physical distractions will depend on your specific scenario, but one that is common across many industries is people. If you are serious about cutting back on context switching, make sure to inform your colleagues, reports, and even managers when you’re going to tackle some deep-focus work.
Additionally, take practical steps such as closing doors to busy corridors and windows that let in noise. If you’re in an open space, consider working with headphones when you don’t wish to be distracted.
- Digital Distractions
Digital distractions are far more numerous and come in many forms. First, every app you use will likely have distractions built-in. Even simple word processing software has a thousand menus and options these days! Luckily, most have a focus mode that cuts the clutter.
Better yet, some software has concentration at its core, such as Spike, which offers a clean design and simple user interface to minimize focus pull. Additionally, the tools at its heart are made to cut back clutter, such as Conversational Email, which removes headers and footers, leaving you with only the message at hand.
Additionally, much of your digital distraction likely comes from notifications on your phone and computer. Turn these off where possible, or use Do Not Disturb and Snooze functionalities for periods of notification-free focus.
One of the most practical ways to cut down on notifications is to cut down on the number of places they come from. The best way to do this is to consolidate your digital life.
Consolidate your apps
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.
Respond when you have time
As discussed earlier, we are heavily encouraged in the modern workplace always to be “on,” which includes responding to messages, emails, or calls right away. Of course, blocking your time helps with this, but sometimes a message must be delivered at a particular hour or saved for a later date.
The solution here is asynchronous communication – when a message – or communication system – doesn’t require an immediate response. Subsequently, it doesn’t demand context switching.
What’s more, if you adopt asynchronous communication, it not only helps you but will help others as well, since they won’t have the pressure to respond immediately and suffer context switching. Some people have even taken to including a note about it in their email signature or even the body of the message, with something along the lines of:
“Please note, I am sending this email at a time that is convenient for me. Please read and respond at a time that is convenient for you.”
Context Switching: Let’s Focus In
Context switching is damaging for many reasons, such as pulling focus, draining energy, and clouding priorities. What’s worse, it is often triggered by very basic human drivers combined with less-than-ideal work cultures.
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.
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