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What context switching is and why it’s killing your productivity

What context switching is and why it’s killing your productivity

Alyssa Towns
June 21, 2022
Updated on:

What context switching is and why it’s killing your productivity
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What would you say if I asked you to describe how your typical workday goes, start to finish? Not the perfectly smooth and organized day you plan on paper when you get to your desk first thing in the morning, but how your day actually looks. 

I’ll start. I first look at my calendar and make a daily to-do list while I clean out my inbox. The day often begins quietly, and sometimes if I’m lucky, I’m able to dig into a project before I attend my first meeting. Then, I join my first Google Meet of the day and often have the meeting running on one screen and no less than ten tabs open on my second monitor. Depending on the type of meeting, I may try to sneak in a few items from my to-do list while I attend. Sometimes a coworker will ping me during a meeting, and I’ll start gathering the information I need to respond to their request.

Once the meeting ends, I get back into my action items. But, it’s not uncommon for a handful of Slack messages to distract me from an email I’m writing or a document I’m working on. I leave the half-written email and quickly respond to my coworkers, handling urgent requests left and right. 

Somewhere in between, I grab my phone and quickly scroll through my unread notifications and, if time permits, social media apps. While scrolling, I remember that I promised to share a document with one of my coworkers a few hours ago (oops!) Suddenly, my stomach growls, and before you know it, I’m downstairs in the kitchen, quickly cooking a late breakfast before I run back up the stairs just in time to hop on another Google Meet. All of these things happen before noon, and the pattern repeats itself over and over throughout the day.

Okay, not all days look like this, but a handful of them do. Can you relate? We fill our days with context switching — switching from one task to an unrelated one.

In this post, we’ll cover:

  • Where context switching originated and what it means
  • Why we do it 
  • How much context switching is too much
  • The costs of context switching and how to avoid it 
  • If context switching can be a good thing 

What is context switching?

Context switching originated in the land of computing. A context switch in computing is the process of storing the state of one process so that the system can resume it later. Ultimately, it allows multiple processes to share a single central processing unit (CPU) without interfering with each other. Our computers quickly and seamlessly put one app on hold when we request another until we are ready to return to it.

From a human behavioral perspective, context switching refers to our ability to shift from one task to an unrelated task or project. We toggle between screens, projects, and tasks, turning our attention from one item to another in response to a disruption or interruption all the time. Context switching enables our brains to switch back and forth between tasks. 

Why do we context switch?

Context switching can completely derail an entire workday and leave us unfinished to-do lists. Despite knowing and feeling its effects, many of the reasons why we context switch so frequently are found in our environment in the modern workplace. 

The three main culprits are perceived urgency, interruption by notifications, and attending too many sporadic meetings. Let’s dive into each. 

Everything is “urgent”

Even when we don’t always intentionally mean to, we reward and applaud rapid responsiveness at work. Some of us assume that a request sent via Slack or Microsoft Teams is urgent, and we should stop what we are doing and handle it right away. Whether we set these expectations for ourselves or others impose them on us, the truth is that every task and project can’t truly be urgent. 

“The ability to pivot one’s focus on a dime is valuable in emergency rooms, restaurant kitchens, and active combat — but that’s not a sustainable operating model for long-term projects,” advice columnist Karla L. Miller wrote in The Seattle Times. “Over time, it can foster fragmented thinking, flattened priorities and emotional burnout. If everything’s urgent, then nothing is.”

(Read more: Not sure how to determine when a task is urgent? The Eisenhower Matrix can help.)

Notifications interrupt the moment

Smartphone and desktop notifications alike interrupt our concentration at every opportunity. On top of that, research suggests Americans check their phones 344 times per day, with 70% of Americans checking their phones within five minutes of receiving a notification. Another study found that the average person receives between 65 and 80 notifications per day.

It’s not that notifications are inherently bad for us. Rather, we design them to be addictive. In an interview with Bustle, Psychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez PsyD explained that notifications activate a reward center in our brains that make us feel gratified and release dopamine, similar to the rush of winning a slot machine. 

Whether or not we choose to dig into the context or request behind a notification is irrelevant; they still grip our attention and derail us. “Whether you follow a notification or not, your train of thought will inevitably be interrupted by your noticing, processing, and determining whether or not to respond to the notification,” wrote Entrepreneur and “productivity geek” Steve Glaveski in HBR. “Recent estimates find that while each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, it can add up to a 40% productivity loss if you do lots of switching in a day.”

(Read more: Feeling notification overload? We recommend doing these three things to help you better manage notifications.)

Too many meetings 

Research suggests on average most employees attend 62 meetings and spend 31 hours in unproductive meetings per month. In The Future of Meetings Report 2021, Fellow reported that workers attend an average of 11-15 meetings per week. When our teams pull us into too many meetings, we switch between periods of deep work and hopping between meetings. 

Combat context switching as a result of meeting madness by stacking your meetings when possible. Consider implementing a No Meeting Day to indulge in uninterrupted Focus Time for a full eight hours. 

How much context switching is too much?

Some amount of context switching is necessary for juggling tasks. But how is too much? There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules around how much context switching might be too much to handle, unfortunately. There are, however, some signs and impacts to watch out for, including feeling overwhelmed.

Our Head of Community Anna Dearmon Kornick, spoke with Inc. about feelings of overwhelm at work and where they stem from. While workers may feel like they have too much to do and can’t get to it all, Kornick explained that our to-do lists sometimes aren’t the real problem. Instead, context switching leads to feelings of overwhelm and can prevent us from getting our work done (or done well).

If you want to know if you’re doing too much context switching, consider the following:

  • Am I regularly accomplishing my most important tasks? 
  • How often am I unable to get through my to-do list? 
  • Do I feel like I can give my work undivided attention?
  • Do I regularly feel overwhelmed or drained during the workweek? 
  • What’s the optimal way I want to spend my time, and how can I make steps toward this?

The costs of context switching

In computing, context switching is intensive and requires processor time to switch successfully. Simply stated, context switching requires a substantial cost to the operating system, particularly as it relates to CPU time.  

Much like operating systems, humans also pay for context switching. Now that we know our environments contribute to and sometimes incentivize (even if it’s unintentional) our need to context switch, let’s take a deep dive into the cost of context switching.

Productivity declines 

It’s probably unsurprising that switching back-and-forth between tasks makes us less productive. Think about all of the unfinished tasks and projects you said you would make your way back to and never did or haven’t yet. Research tends to support the idea that context switching negatively impacts our productivity.

According to the Workgeist Report ‘21, context switching harms cognitive functioning:

“Human brains are not wired for a working day of glancing between your inbox, various different documents, slide decks, and more. No wonder that 45% say this makes them less productive and 43% say it is very tiring to switch between tools and communications channels all the time.” 

Lost time

A 2005 landmark study on multitasking, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that it takes an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds for people to resume work following an interruption. 

In another study investigating the context of interruptions, researchers found that interrupted workers perform faster, but for an interesting reason. “Surprisingly, our results show that interrupted work is performed faster. We offer an interpretation. When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted,” the researchers wrote.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Edward G. Brown, an efficiency and workflow consultant to financial firms, described the amount of time lost to interruptions in the financial services industry. According to Brown, interruptions can take up to 238 minutes (or almost four hours) per day, and restarting takes another 84 minutes. Stress and fatigue due to inefficiencies and do-overs cost another 50 minutes. When we add it all up, that’s 372 minutes (just over six hours) in productive time lost per day in the financial services industry. 

When we lose time throughout the workday, we inevitably have to push our Focus Time to the wayside, leaving less time for deep work.

Attention diminishes

Sophie Leroy, a University of Minnesota professor, first presented the idea of attention residue in her 2009 paper titled “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?” Her research revealed that when we switch tasks from one to another, we leave part of our attention behind with the first task. And since part of our attention sits on the first task, we cannot give the task at hand our complete focus. 

Here’s a simple example. Task one is a report due to your boss at the end of the week. The report requires considerable detail and takes a few hours to complete. This week, you’re presenting at your team meeting, which takes place mid-week. You need to create a slide deck to present to the rest of your team. You start your day working on your end-of-week report for an hour in a focused session and decide to switch to the team presentation since that’s due first. 

As you start to work on your presentation, you remember updates here and there that you want to include in your report. So you write them on sticky notes as you continue to power through your slide deck. Suddenly, your anxiety kicks in; knowing that this meeting is right around the corner, you start to rush through your slides. Meanwhile, you mentally revisit feedback from your boss on your last weekly report and try to recall all the changes that you need to make this week. 

You complete both tasks on time, but as you present to your team, you catch a handful of typos and slides that don’t quite make sense. Your performance was subpar and suffered slightly — that’s how attention residue works.

More mental fatigue and burnout 

While our brains can handle a lot, research suggests we have limited brain capacity and can only keep a limited amount of information “in mind” at any given time. Our working memory is a necessary aspect of being able to get our work done. 

In response to an unhealthy level of context switching, we may experience what some refer to as mental fatigue, or sometimes referred to as brain fog. An example of mental fatigue includes having to read the same email five times before the contents of the message start to make sense. While some consider an acute case of mental fatigue during a busier-than-usual week normal, prolonged mental fatigue can lead to burnout.

When we overload our brains with information and overwork it regularly, it’s not uncommon for symptoms of burnout to arise. Signs like feeling drained and tired, headaches, poor immunity, loss of motivation, withdrawal from responsibilities, and more, may appear. 

Sacrifice importance for urgency

Context switching inherently forces us to reprioritize our work, which often means we sacrifice time that we could have spent working on an important task for an urgent one. If we aren’t strategic in how we think about our work and understand our goals, our days can become monotonous routines characterized by low-impact, low-significance tasks. We zoom in on the here and now rather than think about how our time and the work we complete should tie back to a bigger picture.

How to avoid (or prevent) context switching

Context switching isn’t entirely avoidable, and some level of context switching is good! (More on that next.) But there are strategies you can use to prevent and avoid unnecessary context switching.

Plan your Focus Time and stick to it

Focus Time is two or more hours of uninterrupted time to work. It’s a time management strategy with the goal of eliminating distractions and interruptions as much as possible so that you can do your best, most focused work. One way to avoid unnecessary context switching is to preschedule your Focus Time (or better yet, let Clockwise add it to your calendar for you).

This allows you to save time in your week to solely focus on your important, creative work, or what Cal Newport referred to as deep work. When you add this time to your calendar, let your team members know that this time is non-negotiable and they shouldn’t schedule over it unless they’ve asked you first. Plan to work on your most important tasks during this time, and don’t sacrifice the time unless you absolutely have to.

When your reserved Focus Time rolls around, set yourself up for further success by using a focus app, leveraging the Do Not Disturb mode on Slack, and closing tabs you don’t need for your work.  

Manage your relationship with notifications

Whether we like it or not, we all have a relationship with the digital notifications in our lives. Even if you think checking one notification isn’t harmful, you’ll be responding to three Slack messages, two text messages, and clicking through every notification on Twitter before you know it.

There are many ways to approach your relationship with notifications and strategies you can employ to help:

Turn off unnecessary notifications

I don’t know about you, but there are some notifications I can certainly live without, especially on my smartphone. Conduct an audit of the notifications you receive on your iPhone or Android and turn off the ones you don’t need. For iPhone users, you can shut notifications off or switch the type (banner, sounds, badges) if you prefer to leave some on. Go through your apps and add them to one of the following categories:

  • Need-to-know now: These are the apps that you want to receive notifications from instantly and need updates from as soon as they happen. Try using banners, sounds, or both.
  • Need-to-know, but can wait until later: These apps you want to receive updates from, but it doesn’t matter if you see updates immediately or hours after they happen. Try using badges for these notifications as a reminder to revisit them later.
  • Don’t need to know: Shut off notifications from these apps and save yourself the headspace!

You can do the same on Slack and mute channels you don’t need to receive notifications from if you have any. While miscellaneous channels provide an excellent space for workers to chat about hobbies and other non-work-related topics, they can be distracting. 

Use Do Not Disturb mode 

If you’re not into shutting notifications off entirely, try utilizing the Do Not Disturb mode on your mobile device and muting notifications from your chat tools during set periods. (If you’re unfamiliar with Do Not Disturb mode, you won’t receive notifications when you turn this feature on.)

When you leverage Do Not Disturb mode on iPhone or Android, you have the ability to set who can interrupt you;  that way, you won’t miss any critical or emergency phone calls or text messages. 

Schedule time to check your notifications

Similar to scheduling time to check your inbox and respond to emails, consider doing the same for notifications. Rather than fall into the trap of instant distraction, plan time throughout the day for checking notifications and schedule it on your calendar. As you review your notifications, be sure to jot down any that you want or need to follow up on, and any that require immediate action (such as a coworker asking you to send them something). Write these items down rather than trying to store them all in your head for later.

Take control over your environment 

Sometimes our daily habits and surroundings exacerbate the amount of context switching we do daily, so it’s essential to take control of your environment where you can. Tactics for managing your environment include:

  • Decluttering your space. It’s tough not to feel distracted when our physical environments provide plenty of opportunities for distraction. Add a daily “tidy up” practice to clean and organize your desk space. Store notes away at the end of the day if you can. That way, you can revisit them when you have time for them and not when you should be focusing on something else. Your decluttering practice should also include your digital space. Close tabs you don’t need, organize your desktop and remove unnecessary files, and clean out your inbox regularly each week.
  • Using the minimum amount of technology. While having multiple devices and screens can be nice at times, it can also contribute to the chaos. If you can cut back on the technology and associated tools you’re using, it may benefit you. For example, I’ve started taking meetings on my laptop and leaving my second monitor off so that I can focus on one screen and not scroll through other tabs or do other work. If you don’t need your phone nearby, place it in another room for a few hours — out of sight, out of mind.
  • Work in a new environment. If you’re a remote worker working from a home office, household to-dos might distract you. While you may be able to take advantage of lunch breaks to start a load of laundry, consider working in a new environment on days you feel too distracted. For some, it might be easier to sit at a coffee shop for a few hours to focus rather than from the comfort of home.

Harness the power of time management strategies 

Structure is the antidote to context switching — when you know what you should be doing when, and you get clear on your priorities, it’s much harder for distractions to squeeze their way into your day. Below are a few of our go-to time management strategies to try. Use one or more or a combination to create a framework that works best for you.

  • Time blocking: Choosing in advance what to work on and blocking off chunks of time on your calendar for your chosen tasks.
  • Timeboxing: Pre-determine how long you’ll spend on your tasks before doing them, schedule time for them, and stick to the allotted time. (This helps with Parkinson’s Law, so you can avoid filling extra time with distractions.) 
  • Pomodoro Technique: Short 25-minute sessions to focus on a single task, followed by  5-minute breaks. 

If your schedule allows, you can also theme your days and group similar tasks to reduce task switching. For example, maybe Mondays are meeting days, Tuesdays are for analytical tasks, and Wednesdays are for creating documents and slide decks. 

Can context switching be a good thing?

While context switching can hurt our productivity, it’s important to understand that the act of context switching isn’t always a bad thing. At times, it can be a good thing! Psychologist and author at Cognition Today, Aditya Shukla, described it best.

Contrary to popular belief, short distractions as well as switching tasks and paying attention to a small variety of information is good for maintaining focus for a long time. When we choose just one type of task and monotonously focus on it for a while, we get habituated (unresponsive) and attention to details (and changes) worsens,” Shukla wrote.

Did you make it here without context switching?

You made it to the end! Context switching doesn’t have to be your enemy, nor should it take control of your workday. Environmental factors, like a sense of urgency, frequent notifications, and small breaks between meetings, contribute to how much we context switch. Some of the costs of context switching include reduced productivity and attention, lost time, more mental fatigue, and sacrificing important tasks. You can prevent context switching by planning out your Focus Time, managing your relationship with notifications, controlling your environment, and creating habits using proven time management strategies. Clockwise can help you schedule Focus Time and optimize your workday so you can stay focused.

About the author

Alyssa Towns

Alyssa Towns has written productivity and time management content for Clockwise for several years. Early in her career, she dove into time management strategies to effectively manage her workday calendar and 10+ C-Suite officers' calendars across various organizations. She uses her training in change management to write time management, the future of work, and career content that helps people change their behaviors and habits. In addition, she writes about artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology for G2's Learn Hub. When she isn't writing, Alyssa enjoys trying new restaurants with her husband, playing with her Bengal cats, adventuring outdoors, or reading a book from her TBR list.

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