Understanding context switching and how it affects productivity
The term context switching was initially coined by those working in computing to describe operating systems running multiple processes via a single central processing unit. This allows computer users to easily switch apps without their processor needing to restart each window or program when they come back to it.
Productivity experts have since used context switching to explain the act of switching from one task to another, causing a mental shift and exhausting your brain.
Let’s look at an example of context switching in action.
Say your main goal for the day is putting together the content and slide design for an upcoming webinar promoting a new product launch. You’ve planned out your topic, set the date, and started promotion. Your final step is actually creating the content.
Researching and writing out your slide content is an example of deep work. Why? Because it’s a cognitively challenging task that requires your full focus. On the other hand, shallow work is less demanding and can be accomplished without as much mental focus (e.g., responding to direct messages).
However, in the middle of your research, a notification pops up that a coworker has sent you an email with an update on your team’s latest email marketing funnel. You can’t help yourself, so you read it and, while it’s fresh in your mind, send a quick response.
Back to your webinar content.
You barely get a full paragraph written before you get an instant message from another colleague sharing their upcoming vacation days. You sign off on it, which reminds you that you also need to send this same colleague recent conversion data from a new landing page. Before you know it, you’re responding to a few unrelated emails and—look at the time!—five minutes until your weekly marketing meeting that you need to prepare for.
When all is said and done, you’ve been switching back and forth between unrelated tasks and communication for an hour and have barely made a dent in your webinar.
This is your brain on context switching
Context switching, task switching, multitasking—whatever you want to call it, it’s bad for your brain and your (and your team’s) productivity.
You may feel like you’ve been productive all day, but when you take a step back, you likely haven’t completed much on your to-do list, and deep work has probably taken the biggest hit.
A popular study showed that multitasking doesn’t make you more productive. Due to the time it takes to shift mental gears, it’s actually much less efficient than focusing on a single task for a longer period of time.
Another study found that when dealing with interruptions and shifts to different tasks, it can take an average of 23 minutes to get completely back on track.
I think we can all agree that we’re still in recovery from a year where the number of notifications popping up on your phone and computer all day has made it far more difficult to avoid context switching.
The takeaway? Your brain on context switching is unproductive, and it’s making you miserable and exhausted—literally. Neuroscientists found that multitasking is draining the energy reserves in your brain and running down the fuel you need to actually complete important tasks.
Why does context switching happen in the first place?
With context switching so ingrained in our day-to-day lives, we have to ask what on earth led to this “norm” to begin with?
There are a few different reasons, but we’re going to start by being blunt: Team leaders tend to reward responsiveness. You may even be guilty of this yourself.
We get it, it’s satisfying to receive an answer to your question immediately. But this type of instant gratification is backwards and can lead to problems like email overload, burnout, and, of course, productivity loss due to context switching.
Instead of complimenting employees who always respond to instant messages and emails immediately, create a culture that empowers team members to take back control of their time. Encourage them to turn off notifications and only respond to communication during certain parts of the day so they can use the rest of their time to focus on important tasks. (More on this in a bit.)
Expectations around responsiveness aren’t the only reason that context switching occurs, though.
Think about the number of push notifications you receive throughout the day. On your phone, you could be receiving constant pop-ups from social networks, meal delivery apps, games, email clients, and more. On your computer, you might be receiving notifications for direct messages, email, reminders, calendar events, and more.
Dealing with the constant barrage of disruptions can easily lead to an automatic click over to your notifications to see what you’re missing or to send a quick reply. But doing so takes up way more mental time and energy than the amount of time it took to read up on the latest message or type out a response.
Whether it’s a part of your work culture or an act of self-sabotage, context switching has consequences that are all too real.
The consequences of context switching
We’ve already mentioned how context switching kills your productivity, how exactly does it do that?
Let’s dig deeper into the actual cost of context switching to help you understand why it’s so important to ensure this isn’t the norm on your team.
Reduction in energy
We talked about how context switching drains your brain’s energy reserves. This means you have less energy to use on other things, whether you’re at work or you’ve logged off for the day.
If you’re noticing that you don’t have the energy to complete your tasks or that you lack the motivation to do basic life things after you turn off the computer or get home from the office, that might be a clue that you’re using too much energy constantly shifting between tasks.
Loss of focus
Context switching can make it next to impossible to focus on a task. Think back to our webinar example. Between switching back and forth from researching and writing your content to the other tasks on your to-do list, there was little to no energy left to actually focus on getting the main task accomplished.
Loss of focus is also a sign of burnout—something that can easily happen when our energy reserves are drained. So it comes as no surprise that 52% of employees have reported experiencing burnout in 2021.
Lack of prioritization
When you’re constantly moving from task to task, you lose a sense of priority on which tasks actually need to be finished first. Instead, you’re giving equal attention to tasks that might not necessarily deserve it.
Back to our deep work vs. shallow work explanation, the easiest way to feel productive is to tick shallow work off of your to-do list. After all, responding to emails and micromanaging your team’s tasks feels good and is relatively easy to complete because it doesn’t require deep thought.
But if you spend most of your day on shallow work, you’re not actually getting your important work done. By important work we mean strategic planning and development, solving problems, conducting research, running retrospectives, learning new skills, and so on.
Context switching is inevitable, especially when you’re in charge, but you do have to build boundaries for yourself (and your team) so that you prioritize deep work and avoid getting bogged down in shallow tasks all day long. More on how to do this in the next section.
Impact on cognitive function
The brain sciences journal "Brain Research" published an experiment wherein participants switched between tasks continuously for two hours to see how it affected their cognitive function.
Unsurprisingly, those who spent the entire time switching between tasks experienced more mental fatigue, made more errors, and had late reaction times.
This means that context switching can lead to poor performance, so having the expectation that your team should multitask to get things done can actually have a negative impact rather than a positive one.
Here’s how to build better productivity systems
Just because your team may be guilty of context switching doesn’t mean its overall productivity is doomed. There are a few ways to build better productivity systems that help everyone improve performance, work smarter, and get back their mental energy.
Try the Pomodoro technique
One well-known productivity system is the Pomodoro technique.
This technique breaks your workday into 25-minute segments of focus time broken up by five-minute breaks. Each of these periods of time is referred to as “Pomodoros.” After four consecutive Pomodoros, you get to reward yourself with a longer 15-30 minute break.
The Pomodoro technique will make your workload look something like this:
- 25 minutes: Create an outline of your webinar slides
- 5 minutes: Stand up and take a bathroom break
- 25 minutes: Write the content for your first 5 slides
- 5 minutes: Refill your coffee cup or water bottle
- 25 minutes: Write the content for your next 5 slides
- 5 minutes: Scroll through social media or walk around the house/office
- 25 minutes: Check emails and team communication
- 15 minutes: Get a few chores done (if working from home)
Rinse and repeat with your next few tasks.
This is a great way to help you make the most of your time. When you have a timer counting down each 25-minute interval, you’re more focused on getting what you can do before rewarding yourself with a brain break.
These brain breaks are a key part of the Pomodoro technique, as they’re meant to help you be more productive during the time periods that you’re actually working.
And it can also be a great introduction to doing less context switching throughout the day. If you’re worried about spending hours of time away from emails or communication, use every third Pomodoro or so to check in with coworkers and respond to emails.
Use batching and time blocking methods
Task batching is the act of working on similar tasks all at once before moving onto a different batch of similar tasks.
Rather than allowing distractions like emails and message notifications to cause you to switch tasks, you keep your focus on a single batch until you’ve completed it or made significant progress before moving on to the next.
This way, you can set aside four hours to focus on your webinar content before switching gears and dedicating thirty minutes to an hour for team communication and responding to any emails or messages that may have come in.
Batching and time blocking makes sure that you’re giving yourself enough time and mental energy to work on a task for a prolonged period of time before moving on to something new. As a result, your brain’s energy reserves are ready for each new task.
To successfully batch your tasks, create a list of each batch and how much time you plan to work on each one. Add each time block to your calendar, so you know when to start and stop each separate batch.
Some batches will need to be broken up across multiple days or blocks of time in order to complete, so don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Instead, set a goal for how much you’d like to accomplish before moving on.
Find the right project management tools
Another great approach is using some kind of project management tools to track your to-do list and check each item off as you accomplish it.
Having solid project management software for your team is a great way to help everyone track their tasks and collaborate on projects together.
However, each of your team members should also have their own ways of managing their daily to-do list, whether it’s a paper planner or their own online task management system. Empower your team to find what works for them so they can easily plan out their day to be as efficient as possible.
Turn off notifications and eliminate distractions
Have everyone on your team make a log of all the notifications and disruptions they experience throughout their workweek.
This might be email notifications, Slack messages, phone app notifications, phone calls, coworkers stopping by their desk, impromptu messages to hop on a meeting, etc.
Once the week is over, each member of your team will have a clear idea of the day-to-day distractions they face. From there, they can more easily figure out how to avoid them.
A few ways to do this are:
- Turn off all push notifications or turn on “Do Not Disturb” mode
- Leave phones in a desk drawer or another room (out of sight, out of mind)
- Close programs and apps that aren’t being actively used
- Use apps that block access to certain programs during productive times
Take regular breaks to recharge
Despite evidence that workers who take lunch breaks score higher on self-reported performance and engagement metrics, most of us are taking increasingly shorter breaks, or worse, eating lunch at our desks.
One great thing about the Pomodoro method is that it forces you to take breaks after each interval of focused work. But that tactic doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s essential to incorporate breaks throughout the workday in order to do your best work.
As a team leader, this habit should start with you. Take regular breaks where you stand up and walk away from your screen. Have your team put breaks into their calendar and encourage everyone to completely step away from work during their lunch break or take a quick walk every hour or so.
Switch to asynchronous communication
Step one: stop responding to messages right away.
Step two: stop expecting your team to.
Rewiring your company’s expectations on responsiveness can help everyone stop juggling their high-priority tasks with team communication. Instead, they’ll feel empowered to focus on the work that matters and start communicating on their own time.
Implementing an asynchronous communication (or “async”, as we like to call it) policy within your team is a great hack for improving expectations around overall team communication.
If you’re unaware, synchronous communication is when all parties involved in a conversation are speaking in real-time (i.e. in a meeting or face-to-face); asynchronous communication allows people to respond when it suits them.
It gives team members time to reflect before they respond. With space to think before firing off a reply, team members can do a little bit of research, resulting in better messages with more empathy and greater context. This saves you even more time in the long run as you avoid miscommunication.
When you prioritize asynchronous communication, you’re allowing your team to focus on high-value tasks first. Team members can get important things done and then check emails and respond to async voice messages at a better time.
How you can empower your teams for deep work
Ultimately, it’s up to you as a team leader to help empower your team to take more time for focused work and implement practices that are going to help everyone on your team spend less time switching from task to task.
Here are a few ways you can do that.
Have employees put deep work time on their calendars
Make sure everyone on the team knows not to disturb a coworker’s deep work time. No meetings can be scheduled, no messages or emails should be followed up on, and no stopping by their office or desk.
Having this standard in place helps to reduce interruptions and forced context switches when someone on your team is trying to focus on specific tasks.
Allow employees to set auto-responders
Let your team set up auto-responders for emails that set expectations of when someone will receive a reply.
The email auto-responder could say something like:
This helps your team set clear boundaries on when they’ll be available for communication, making them feel more comfortable leaving email alone while they focus on higher priority tasks.
Provide spaces for deep work
If your team works in an open-concept office, it can be difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. Nearby coworkers may end up in a discussion, distractions may come from people walking around on their own breaks or heading to the bathroom, etc.
This is why it’s a good idea to provide separate spaces that your team can utilize to complete deep work projects and keep communal spaces for collaborative work.
In the office, you could allow employees to book private areas, much like they would book a conference room. For remote team members, consider covering the cost of a coworking space or subsidising a chosen environment that facilitates their focus work.
Remote workers, especially the younger generation, may not have the best remote work setup (e.g., a home office or separate working area). Offering more options shows employees you’re thinking about their welfare, while benefiting from a greater chance of productivity.
Defend your team’s time
Our culture is so used to responding to messages immediately and having our own messages responded to immediately. There might be some pushback as you shift focus to reduce context switching and give your employees the power to set aside time for focus work.
Defaulting to async communications will help. You can defend your team’s time while also setting expectations on when a timely response should be provided, even if time is set aside for deep work that day.
For example, you might need feedback on a project. With Yac, you can send an asynchronous screen share to team members with a request for feedback by the end of the day (or week) to avoid a check-in or status update meeting.
It may be a bit of a culture shock at first; that’s to be expected. Eventually, everyone will be on board and appreciate the change in expectation around everything needing to be attended to immediately.
Give your brain a break. Context switching is making you and your team unproductive and miserable, and it’s time for a change.
Rewiring how your team thinks about communication and deep work can be a game changer in productivity, focus, and burnout.
To help improve the way your team communicates, consider Yac for asynchronous communication. Book a free demo to learn more about how we can help.