Context switching is a massive productivity killer. More worrisome still is the fact that it’s so hard to control. While writing this article, I’m struggling not to commit this productivity crime myself.
Only a small percentage of the day is free from communication distractions, but communication apps aren’t the only things that have us flip-flopping between multiple tasks.
In this post, we explore the causes of context switching, how it affects the human brain, and the best ways to beat this phenomenon — both as an organization and an individual.
What is context switching?
Context switching means quick, not-well-thought-out jumps from one task to another. This doesn’t refer to crossing off a feature build from your to-do list and moving on to the next one. We’re talking about instant, and often unnecessary, switches.
Here are some examples:
- Switching from customizing a report to checking email
- Switching from mapping out your goals for the week to sending a colleague a file
- Switching from writing ad copy to replying to LinkedIn comments
- Switching from editing a help center doc to answering a colleague’s question
When switching is done intentionally — after a task is complete — it’s not a problem.
The issue, and what we mean by context switching, are continuous task switches that combine to ruin our productivity and double our time to complete important projects.
What contributes to context switching?
Context switching is complex. To simplify all of the causes, we’ve grouped them into two main camps: the times you let distractions or bad habits get the best of you, and the times you’re interrupted by someone or something else.
- What this category of context switching is: Distractions, addictions, or bad habits around constantly checking communication apps, lack of discipline around staying focused, procrastination disguised as constant context switching.
- Examples: Checking social media, doomscrolling at work, checking emails, or Clickup chat frequently.
- What this category of context switching is: Distractions and things that take you out of the context of your work that is fully or partly beyond your control. This category also includes constant project pivoting due to unfocused management or lack of strategic company direction.
- Examples: Phone calls, notifications that you must leave on, or forgot to turn off, customer calls spread throughout the day instead of batched. Also, jumping from one project to another when putting out fires or because you’re juggling two very different job roles.
How does the human brain cope with constantly switching tasks?
Not every context switch can be avoided. While you need to protect your productive time, you also need to be available for communication a couple hours a day.
The benefits of great internal communication can’t be overstated and include increased retention and innovation.
And yet, being in constant contact with colleagues contributes to high levels of context switching. Plus, there are plenty of instances of context switching that can’t be blamed on communication at all. Unnecessary task hopping and social media checking are simply bad news.
Have you ever noticed how long it takes you to get back into deep work after a call? It takes as much as 25 minutes to switch contexts. This is why switching between tasks is such a huge destroyer of productivity.
“When we think we’re multitasking we’re actually multiswitching. That is what the brain is very good at doing — quickly diverting its attention from one place to the next. We think we’re being productive. We are, indeed, being busy. But in reality we’re simply giving ourselves extra work.” — Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection and Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in Crowded World
In other words, the human brain wasn’t designed for (and can’t quite keep up with) all of the distractions. Not even kidding, multitasking causes your IQ to drop by 10 points.
Imagine your grandmother peeling 20 potatoes for a family dinner. She didn’t stop after 3 potatoes and start chopping an onion, now did she? This is the same level of singular focus we need to have as knowledge workers.
What are the associated problems with context switching?
Not convinced that this phenomenon is a problem? Let’s take a look at some of the ways that yes, context switching really is that bad.
This is not an alarmist perspective. It’s a fact. Context switching and interruptions cause us to take 50% more time to complete our work.
When employees are constantly multitasking, chatting, and context switching, they begin to think that this level of interruption is normal. They lower their expectations and standards for their own productivity and that of their peers. This fosters complacency.
When knowledge workers are focused on a singular task, they’re much more likely to spot issues with the workflow and improve it than if they’re jumping between things all of the time.
You’re not mistaken. It does feel good to open a new tab. You get a little dopamine kick every time you open a new tab, and that hit of hormones is even greater when you open up a social media tab and start scrolling.
This is such a big problem that people start opening up Facebook and Twitter tabs without even meaning to.
The more you scroll social media and read scandalous political news, the more you just keep on doing it.
Lack of focus
It might be easy enough to switch between responding to emails and uploading files to a Jira card, but it’s not so easy to switch between challenging projects and distracting tasks.
The more challenging or boring a project is, the more we feel to context switching, and the less focus we have in order to complete it.
“When you’re always online you’re always distracted. So the always online organization is the always unproductive organization.” — John Medina, author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
Frustration between colleagues
Context switching can cause frustration and confusion between colleagues. Why do you always interrupt me? Why do you take too long to respond to my emails? Why don’t you turn off your notifications if you don’t want to be interrupted?
The lack of clarity around company expectations can lead to friction.
How to address context switching
So what do we do about this big mess we’ve all collectively gotten ourselves into? Here’s how we can fix it.
How to beat context switching as an organization
Use these recommendations to reduce the bad effects of context switching as an organization:
- Encourage employees to implement deep work and focus time.
- Teach employees how to protect their deep work time (turn off notifications, set statuses to unavailable, etc.).
- Lower expectations on response times to non-urgent messages, especially on Slack, and encourage more asynchronous communication that fits the worker’s schedule.
- Have team managers set expectations for team-wide responsiveness so that they match the nature of their work.
- Encourage team members to have their deep work time at the same time each day if possible. (At GoLinks, we have no-meetings Wednesdays and on this day each week, the team also knows that any messages received can be replied to slower than usual since everyone is in deep work mode.)
- Encourage employees in non-customer facing roles to batch calls with colleagues to the same chunk of the day whenever possible.
- Purchase company-wide licenses for productivity apps like FocusMe that put limits on email checking and block distracting websites, and allow employees to individually customize the app to block these sites at certain times of the day.
- Train employees to use the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests 25 minutes of work with a 5-minute break and then repeats.
- Provide counseling to employees with addictive internet behaviors, and ensure that HR tells employees about these services and that their usage of them will be confidential.
- During manager reviews, check for any issues with managers who are constantly having employees pivot from one project to another and aren’t skilled at providing direction and focus for the team that reports to them.
How to beat context switching on an individual level
Here are important ways to combat context switching for yourself:
- Use a productivity app like FocusMe to limit email and block social media websites for chunks of time.
- Set your status in Slack to deep work and turn off notifications to other systems.
- Keep your phone in your backpack or purse when not using it so you don’t notice every text message.
- Batch similar or related tasks to reduce the effects of context switching on your productivity.
- Catch yourself when you’re doing something that breaks your focus (such as checking email too frequently or opening up tabs to check the news) and consider whether you need a five-minute walk around the building or a snack instead.
- Don’t be ashamed to ask your manager for help, such as purchasing a productivity software or requesting team-wide deep focus hours.
- Set up your day for success by getting through a few small tasks at the start of the day, then tackling bigger projects, then finishing a final batch of small tasks.
- Create a to-do list and prioritize it every day, so you know what to do and in what order.
- Focus on a single project at a time, and work on all of the related tasks in that project together.
- If you’re constantly being required to shift direction and your focus is often taken off of the work that matters, talk to your manager or HR about what solutions can be explored.
Why faster web navigation matters
GoLinks is a tool that can reduce the negative effects of context switching by making it faster for everyone to find what they need. Go links are short links for internal usage. For example, go/assets can redirect to your company’s digital asset management system, while go/brand can redirect to the folder location of your company’s logo files within the digital asset management system.
GoLinks combats the productivity loss of context switching in two key ways. Firstly, it makes it easy for employees to find what they’re looking for themselves instead of interrupting a colleague. It also helps everyone in the company find anything faster so that when they do have to do necessary context switching, they can get back in the flow quicker.
Context switching is a real issue, but luckily, there’s plenty you can do about it.
Help everyone find what they’re looking for faster with GoLinks. Try it free.