Modern workers are used to constantly splitting their focus across multiple tasks. Replying to emails, answering the phone, and attending chats are just a few of the distracting behaviors you might face while simultaneously trying to write a report, code a new app, and so on. Our attention is constantly stretched in multiple directions.
When you jump between tasks in this way, we call it context switching. This kind of context-switching isn’t conducive to completing your best work. If you’re continually engaging in this behavior multiple times throughout the working day, you could be destroying your productivity.
What is Context Switching?
Context switching, loosely speaking, is our habit of constantly shifting between tasks that are not related. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that this behavior, also known as multitasking, takes a toll on productivity.
The APA highlights how humans’ executive control processes have two stages. The first is known as “goal shifting,” which is the stage in which we decide to prioritize one task over another. The second stage, known as “rule activation,” is when we switch our mental focus (or “rules”) to complete a new task. Different tasks require different rules, such as driving a car and writing a report. Though we’re unaware of these control processes taking place, they happen subconsciously every time we context switch.
Why should you avoid context switching?
According to the APA, these “switch costs” are small; that is, the time it takes to subconsciously progress through these two stages is very minute – often a few tenths of a second. However, when you’re continuously context switching tens or even hundreds of times during a workday, that time adds up. The message is clear: context switching can harm productivity.
What’s more, this isn’t the only research supporting the idea that you should avoid context switching, nor is it the only potentially negative effect of this behavior.
Other Research Against Context Switching
As noted above, context switching is also known as multitasking, and there’s a wealth of research into how multitasking has been proven to affect our productivity. While it may feel like an effective way to get through your workday, our tendency to overestimate our ability to multitask is often inflated.
The same research study also found that some people were more likely to be multitaskers than others. This was particularly true in commercial employees who worked in junior roles and had to attend to multiple different tasks throughout their day. What’s more, those who engage in context switching tend to be more prone to distractions; that’s ironic when you consider that context switching is a distraction.
Firstly, when you work on more than one unrelated task simultaneously, you’re more likely to make mistakes. This is less costly in some situations, such as when you mistype a word in a text to your friend because you’re watching TV at the same time. However, in a commercial or healthcare environment, mistakes can be more costly and reflect poorly on performance. Research into academic performance has shown that students who multitask perform poorly compared to peers who do not.
In addition to potentially making more mistakes in your work, you’ll also complete tasks more slowly if you attempt to complete them simultaneously. These “task switch costs” impact on our output, resulting in us working more slowly.
How to Reduce Context Switching
There are a number of ways that you can reduce context switching behavior, as well as a powerful technique you can use to stamp it out altogether. We’ll get to that in a moment; for now, here are some small steps you can take immediately:
1. Try the Pomodoro Technique
According to one research study, people focus best when they complete 52 minutes of work before rewarding themselves with a 17-minute break. Now, depending on your employer and working arrangements, you may see other negative effects from taking a 17-minute break every hour during your workday.
However, the Pomodoro Technique essentially uses this approach, and it’s a technique that has been praised widely. You break up your time into 25-minute increments of work, followed by a 5-minute rest period. Once you’ve completed 4 work increments, you reward yourself with a 20-minute break.
This approach won’t suit everybody’s working arrangements, but you should give it a try if possible. You could also experiment with those break times; you might see success with 20-minute work increments and 5-minute coffee or water breaks throughout.
2. Make sure you take actual breaks
Employees often remain at their desks for a lunch break, particularly when deadlines are looming or the weather is poor outside. Even if you’re eating your lunch at your desk, you’re not really getting a real break. What’s more, you’ll probably be eating with one hand while chatting and browsing the internet with the other – context switching!
Whether your lunch break is 30 minutes, 1 hour, or longer, make an effort to get away from your computer. If you can get outside, you should; fresh air has been linked to improvements in focus and concentration.
3. Ditch synchronous communication where possible
We all work differently. Some people prefer sending an email or Microsoft Teams message when they need to get in touch with a colleague, while others will opt for a phone call or video chat. However, the latter actions eat into your time, and anything you try to do while engaged in that call is also context-switching.
Instead, opt for using email when you have questions or actions that need attention from a colleague or schedule a meeting to cover all of your questions. This way, you can avoid context switching and devote specific time and attention to your colleagues at a time that works for you.
4. Remove distractions from your working environment
With the increase in remote working arrangements, many of us are surrounded by more distractions than ever. Whether we’re watching television in the background, answering text messages, or making idle trips to the fridge, these context-switching activities are awful for our productivity.
Set yourself up for success by changing your environment and removing distractions before you commence work:
- Leave your phone in another room while you’re working, or leave it at home
- Sign out of distracting chat applications unless you explicitly need to be online
- Block social media websites on your work computer
- Block out time in your calendar to focus on specific tasks
How to Avoid Context Switching by Time Blocking
The final bullet point above is a highly effective technique known as time blocking. Time blocking is an organization technique that forces you to give yourself accountability for working on a single task at a time. This structured approach to planning ring-fence tasks in such a way that you’ll stop context switching and see a natural boost in your productivity.
How to use time blocking to boost productivity
Getting started with time blocking is simple. Most of us know what we need to work on from day to day, and thus you can schedule your day or week ahead of time.
- Make a list of your key tasks. Some tasks may be unknown, but they can be integrated into your calendar later down the line. For now, list out all of the tasks you know you need to complete – both daily tasks, such as team stand-up meetings, and one-off tasks, such as completing that project report that has been assigned to you.
- Group similar tasks together. Look for natural groupings where tasks are related to one another. For example, researching data for a report, and writing a report.
- Estimate how long each task will take. For repeated tasks that you’ve done before, this should be fairly simple.
- Block out time and designate tasks. Using your work calendar, schedule tasks throughout your day – or week – and try to keep similar tasks close together. In addition:
- Block time for breaks, as we discussed above
- Leave buffer time on either side of your time blocks for those executive functions
- Schedule more complex tasks for your most productive times of day
While it’ll take a little setup time, the benefits outweigh the initial cost. Of course, if you’re tired of context switching and continually losing time to tab between different applications, you can also change to a dedicated time blocking app like Akiflow.
Akiflow integrates a digital planner with a host of tools designed to facilitate productivity, including keyboard shortcuts, a universal task list, and more. Our users are already saving around 2 hours per day, so why not try Akiflow today?