Context Switching: What It Is and Why It’s a Productivity Problem
Updated: Dec 14, 2022
Funny question for you. Was Read Context Switching Article on your to-do list today, or was it something else that led you here?
If you're like me, there's a good chance you were engaged in something unrelated, you went to check email or look something up, and now you're here. Welcome, by the way! If this sounds familiar, I invite you to continue reading for some helpful guidance on context switching.
In short, context switching happens when we jump from one task to another and never really get into a groove. Maintaining focus on a single task is tough, but it's even harder when we start splitting our attention across multiple contexts.
Many of us are grappling with the adverse effects of context switching every day. A constant flow of notifications is like a gravitational force that pulls us into a reactive workflow.
A hallmark of this type of work is the feeling of being very busy, clearing red notification badges and responding to messages, but not getting any meaningful tasks completed. We’re tired from what feels like a long day, but we've made zero progress on our priorities.
It’s a very unsatisfying and mentally exhausting way to work. So what can we do?
In this article, I dive into what context switching is, the harmful impact it can have on our work-life, and strategies to mitigate the cost of context switching so we can get the most out of our workday.
What Is Context Switching?
Context switching is the process of shifting our attention from one task to another. When we context switch, we’re essentially starting over on a new task, but each switch doesn’t happen immediately.
The brain continues processing the last thing it was focused on, even after switching to something new. It's like cognitive residue builds up with each context switch, leading to a mental traffic jam.
A study from the University of California Irvine showed that each switch can take the brain about 20 minutes before it’s fully adjusted to a new task.
When the brain's bandwidth divides across an increasing number of tasks, it becomes detrimental to the brain's capacity to think clearly and often leads to feeling mentally and emotionally drained.
Why Is Context Switching a Problem?
Context switching has become a major problem for knowledge workers today. The number of tools we use to get our work done has rapidly increased over the past decade, and the number continues to grow. Additionally, each tool has been designed to be more engaging, asking for more of our attention as a result.
Our workflows have made us increasingly reliant on tools for things like asynchronous messaging and project management. We've been trained to constantly be on the lookout for updates and important information, which regularly pull us away from what we're doing. For many, the mere presence of a notification on our phone or desktop can be enough to distract us from the task at hand.
Each time we shift between apps and notifications, we become vulnerable to what might be an unimportant request subverting our important priorities and further dividing our mental bandwidth. Not only do we have to refocus our attention when we shift, but we also have to remember what we were doing, which costs us time and energy — our most precious resources.
This workflow of constant context switching leads to information overload, decision fatigue, and even burnout. Atlassian estimated that 80% of context switches are trivial, but the impact is the equivalent of missing an entire night of sleep or losing 10 IQ points.
What Causes Context Switching?
There are several reasons why context switching has become so common.
First, we live in a culture of constant productivity where we're expected to be connected, respond quickly to communication, and be available almost 24/7. More recently, the rise in remote work has increased interruptions drastically and eroded the separation between our work and home lives. From ringing doorbells to household pets, people working from home are faced with a list of distractions in addition to workplace alerts.
Second, many of us believe that multitasking is the key to productivity. We think that we can get more done by doing two things at once, but this is misleading. When we switch, we're not switching instantly between tasks; we're dividing our mental capacity across multiple things while using more energy. This slows us down.
Another reason we're context-switching more is because of the increase in back-to-back meetings. A day of back-to-back meetings is especially problematic because we're forced to refocus our attention multiple times. This can lead to decision fatigue and make it difficult to contribute to meetings. It's estimated that employees waste up to 31 hours per month in unproductive meetings. Luckily, there are ways to ease context switching during back-to-back meetings.
Lastly, we often switch contexts because we're anxious about getting everything done. Our lists are long, and it often feels like there aren't enough hours in the day. We context switch as part of our "get it all done" mentality, which often results in getting even less done.
In addition to what causes context switching, it’s important to call out the two worst culprits — email and social media. Computer scientist and Deep Work author, Cal Newport, brings home this point in a podcast interview with Lex Fridman.
The takeaway is that when we do things like check email, we expose ourselves to unresolved obligations and things we can't deal with at the moment. When we check social media, we're subjected to emotionally stimulating content that pulls us out of alignment with our mode of getting work done.
So what can we do to address the negative impact on productivity?
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What Can You Do To Reduce Context Switching
For many of us, our days are dictated by our calendars. Mandatory meetings, client calls, and training can look like a stack of legos on our weekly agendas. And while we may not enjoy each of these meetings, many of them are necessary or unavoidable. Since we can't remove all sources of context switching, we must first accept that some degree of context switching will exist.
The good news is that there are strategies to minimize the impact. By adopting these strategies for things we control—like how often we check our email or notifications—we can protect our productivity. We can focus on good meeting hygiene for things we don't have control over—like back-to-back meetings.
Here are five strategies to combat context switching and protect productivity:
1. Carve Out Your Day
Despite many meetings, there are times in the day that remain empty. Claim these times. Your time is yours to protect. Defensive calendaring is an excellent tactic to ensure you have time in your day to focus on what matters most.
You can begin each week by finding the empty times in your calendar and time blocking them for specific tasks. Give each block a label, so you stay focused on what you initially dedicated that time to do. Make your time blocks publicly visible so your teammates don't book meetings during these periods.
2. Set Goals
A week without a plan or a goal can easily get lost in the many tasks of your job. Instead of approaching each day with reactive behavior, plan ahead. Sit down and clarify your daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly goals and priorities.
By proactively planning what you want to accomplish, you can make better decisions about how to spend your time each day. If you're struggling to find time to determine these goals, add it as a task to your list and ensure there's a dedicated time block.
3. Practice Good Meeting Hygiene
When a meeting ends, and everyone feels it was an effective and productive use of time, that signifies good meeting hygiene. Anything less, and you may need to do some work to raise the bar.
Influencing meeting culture at a company can be personally rewarding, boost your career, and help reduce context switching for everyone. Here are some habits to consider before, during, and after meetings.
A good meeting starts with an agenda that clarifies the purpose, discussion topics, and any work you must do ahead of time. If there isn't an agenda, politely request one from the meeting organizer. Before accepting, ensure the meeting meets the requirements of what's necessary and important for you to get the things done that matter most.
Look to see what materials are available to prepare ahead of time. Capturing your thoughts and questions in advance gives you a head start on your meeting notes and makes note-taking during the meeting easier.
During the meeting, resist the urge to let your attention drift elsewhere. Not only will this discipline reduce context switching, but it can also prevent unnecessary meetings in the future. To stay focused, master the art of taking notes. This ensures you capture outcomes and decisions and then communicate these details effectively.
When the meeting ends, take a moment to reflect on your notes and share them with those who will find the information useful. Saving yourself and your teammates from duplicative meetings is worth the effort to reduce the number of times everyone has to switch contexts.
4. Protect Your Energy
Just like your time, your mental health is yours to protect. While some days may be more stressful than others, there are ways to maintain balance. Two of the most effective energy management strategies are proactive planning and clear communication.
First, take breaks seriously and plan for them in advance. Look at your calendar and schedule downtime. Breaks can be a 15-minute walk, extended lunch, or a long weekend. Putting breaks on the calendar gives you something to look forward to, increases motivation, and softens the impact of context switching.
Don’t wait until you’re exhausted and realize you need to take time off. If you reach the point of burnout, it's too late. Recovering from burnout requires a more significant investment than proactively managing your energy on an ongoing basis.
Second, be transparent about your work capacity and communicate your needs to your manager and team. People appreciate the clarity. Plus, taking care of your mental health permits others to maintain theirs. You might be surprised by how often you get what you need when you communicate clearly.
If you realize you're overwhelmed at any point, take a moment to check in with yourself. Here are some mini-breaks and helpful techniques to try, depending on how you feel.
5. Leave Room for Reflection
It can be helpful to set aside time at the end of each day, even if it's just five or ten minutes, to reflect on your work, ideas, and meeting takeaways. Productivity expert, David Allen, recommends this essential habit as part of his popular Getting Things Done system.
Frequent reviews help refocus your attention and put your mind at ease, knowing you’ve captured next steps and have a plan that keeps you on track for larger weekly and quarterly goals.
Get The Most From Your Workday
Context switching can be difficult, but there are ways to reduce its impact. Look for the things you can control, like turning off notifications, practicing good meeting hygiene, and protecting your mental health. Productivity can mean different things, but minimizing distractions and interruptions can help you get the most from your workday and spend time on the things that matter.
Now, what was it you were just doing?
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