Knowledge workers are bogged down by constant notifications, loads of open apps, and growing to-do lists. Keeping up with menial tasks is causing them to work long hours and suffer from burnout.
In its 2022 Anatomy of Work index, Asana reported that 37% of all workers feel overwhelmed when they receive a notification. These workers either respond immediately or beat themselves up for missing an important message. And their solution is often to context switch.
What is context switching?
Context switching happens when you move from one task, tool, or project to another without allowing yourself the ability to get into the flow of work. This process causes you to reset your focus, thus extending the time it takes to complete a task.
Don’t believe context switching is a problem? Consider this scenario:
It’s 9 a.m. on Tuesday, and you have a quarterly report to finish before the team meeting tomorrow. This report will impact the whole team, and everyone knows it, even the CEO. You sip your coffee, crack your knuckles, open the file, and get to it.
But before you hunker down, you check Slack.
Oh—John needs an access code. No problem, you know where it is, and it takes 30 seconds to find the link. You shoot it over to him and then switch back to your report.
Ping! Slack goes off again.
It’s Amy. She wants to know if you could review a press release before she sends it off. It looks important, so you spend 30 minutes editing it. Now it looks good. You flip back to your report.
By the time you outline the content, your stomach growls. Is it noon already? You’ll return to the report after lunch.
And so it goes. You switch back and forth between your main priority—completing your report—and everything else that’s distracting you. This is context switching, and it’s killing your focus work time .
As a result, you stay up late to complete the report. So frustrating.
But what can you do? Ignore your team? Of course not. You’ll have to suck it up. It’s part of the manager’s job, isn’t it?
Sadly, that’s what 40% of all workers believe: burnout is an inevitable part of success.
But what if it isn't?
The cost of context switching
You’ve heard this many times before: “Multitasking is bad!” The truth is that multitasking—the concept of focusing on two or more tasks at once—is technically impossible. What you’re actually doing is context switching.
Without getting into semantics, know this: your brain, the hippocampus specifically, isn’t capable of focusing on multiple tasks at once. You’re actually switching back and forth between tasks in quick succession. Dividing your attention this way is harmless when writing an email and listening to a podcast, but dangerous when texting while driving.
In short: context switching comes with a price.
1. Context switching wastes energy
Have you ever tried opening multiple apps on your computer at once? Notice how they don’t all load immediately? That’s because a computer—like your brain—can only focus on one task at a time. Once a request is completed, it will move to the next task.
Don’t get me wrong—you’ll make gradual progress context switching between tasks. But like opening files on your computer, it’s better to let one load first before activating another. Otherwise, your computer may crash.
For humans, this crash comes in the form of cortisol (stress hormones) production and glucose (energy) depletion, which leads to project fatigue .
2. Context switching wastes time
Context switching requires more processing power. It also sucks up your time, meaning your tasks will take longer to finish.
According to the University of California Irvine , each time you toggle from one task to another, it can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for you to reorient. This includes figuring out where you left off, what needs to be done next, and how to approach it.
About four hours a week , five working weeks a year can be wasted on reorienting after context switching.
3. Context switching leads to more mistakes
Context switching also causes avoidable mistakes because your mind is still thinking about the previous task. This phenomenon is known as attention residue, and it can result in missed details, silly errors, and repeated work.
How context switching affects your team
There are two types of context switching: passive and active.
Passive context switches are external triggers. These are often caused by other people, like an urgent phone call or a delivery person knocking at your door.
Active context switches are triggered internally by you. This could include scrolling through social media while working on your report.
To reduce both causes, familiarize yourself with how deep work and context switching appear in your work practices.
How much focus work time do you get before you become distracted? What are the distractions?
With Produce8 , you can analyze when you shift from one app to another. You can track how long you focus on a specific task before an application like Slack pulls your attention away.
Below is a visual example of two work days. One is where I spent most of the day context switching, communicating with the team while managing different marketing accounts. And on the second day, I was able to focus on a specific project.
What is causing you to context switch? Are you context switching to help someone? Or were you bored and restless?
Once you’ve identified troubling areas and recurring patterns, you can focus on improving your team’s workflow.
How to reduce context switching
1. Reduce passive context switching
As you recall, passive context switching is when an external force distracts you: a Slack notification, a Zoom meeting invite, or a friend messaging you on your phone.
If your team uses Slack frequently throughout the day, then that can be something you address. Have a conversation with them to set a designated time at the beginning or end of the workday when they check Slack requests. Batch your communication the same way you would your tasks.
Increase your measures by turning off notifications and setting an auto-responder that directs all inquiries to someone who is available to handle them.
Communication is key. If you work from home, let your family know they can have your undivided attention before or after work hours. But when you’re working, it’s “please don’t disturb.”
2. Reduce active context switching
Intrusions are common. But what’s even more common is finding ways to distract yourself. I'm certainly guilty. Even while writing this article, I catch myself flipping through the many tabs I have on my browser—a nervous twitch.
And I know I’m not alone.
According to University of California Irvine professor Gloria Mark, we have an attention span of about 40 seconds when looking at a computer screen. That’s not even enough time to figure out what we’re doing before another distraction entices us.
So, are we doomed?
But cutting out distractions completely isn’t realistic. The more you think “I can’t check my email,” the more your brain will want to check your email. So don’t beat yourself up. Psychologist Larry Rosen suggests taking a tech break and giving yourself permission to embrace distractions. Work hard for 10 minutes, and then check your email for 1 minute. Over time, you’ll build up strength.
While you may not be able to sustain hours of focus time immediately, you can get better with practice. It’s like exercising. Start light. Begin with short reps. Focus on your task for 10 minutes, then extend to 15, and then 30.
Measure your progress on the Produce8 timeline to see how successful you were. Did anything interrupt you? Did you interrupt yourself? What was the app or website that stole your attention?
Build new habits with routine and repetition, not rigid rules. Flexibility and focus can be anticipated. For instance, Monday and Friday can be flexible days where you’re open to distractions and context switching, but Tuesday and Thursday are focused. Wednesdays fluctuate.
Work together to maintain your motivation. If you want to achieve a fitness goal, having a community to support you will help. The same goes for productivity at work. Produce8 digital work analytics offers transparency into the whole team’s workflow, allowing you to plan better collectively and identify the most productive work patterns.
Solving the context-switching puzzle for yourself may save you a few hours, but solving it for the whole company can save months. Share your data with your team and see how you can motivate each other.