For most of us, our workdays start with firing up our phones and computers so that we can check our emails, catch up on Slack messages, and look over our task lists. There’s a lot of opening different apps and switching between multiple tools.
All of this bouncing around between different tools, tasks, and resources is called context switching and it’s taking over a lot of our work time – most of the time without us even knowing it. We’ve gotten so used to context switching that it might seem normal, but it comes with a high cost.
In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- What context switching is and why we do it
- The cost of context switching
- How to prevent context switching
What is context switching?
Until recently, the term context switching referred exclusively to the process of a computer storing the state of one process so that it could return to it later. This is what allows us to switch fairly seamlessly from one app or program to another.
Context switching has now worked its way into our language describing human behavior, referring to our tendency to shift from one task to another unrelated task.
When we jump between reviewing our email inbox, checking our calendar, and answering a client call we are context-switching. Multitasking is another word we tend to use to describe context switching, though the two terms do have noted differences.
What we eventually learned about computers is that they struggled when switching tasks. It is becoming clear that there is a real cost to context switching as it applies to human behavior as well.
Why do we “context switch” all the time?
Even though we know that context switching is not the most efficient approach to working, we still do it all the time.
This is because context switching has become an unwritten expectation in the modern workforce. The constant perception of urgency and the barrage of notifications constantly interrupting us, as well as the prevalence of sporadic meetings, all keep us in the habit of context-switching.
We have a false sense of urgency
Whether intentional or not, rapid responsiveness is frequently rewarded in the workplace. This creates the sense that, to succeed, you must adopt a sense of urgency.
A lot of this perceived urgency centers around communications sent by messaging apps like Slack or Teams. When a notification comes in indicating a new message, the feeling that a response is required right away is hard to shake.
Whether we set the expectations ourselves or others set them for us, it’s easy to see the ways that the value of quick responses lends to a sense of urgency which leads to habitual context switching.
We receive notifications constantly
With research showing that 70% of Americans check their phones within 5 minutes of receiving a notification and the average person receiving 65-80 notifications each day, it is clear that this is a major contributor to the persistence of context switching in our daily lives.
The notifications themselves are not inherently bad, but the challenge is that they have an addictive quality. The rush of dopamine that our minds receive when we get a notification is something we are conditioned to chase.
Although you might not jump to respond to every notification that your receive, even the acts of recognizing, processing, and deciding on the appropriate action for each one is a type of context switching.
We attend too many unnecessary meetings
In The Future of Meetings Report 2021, we learn that employees spend 31 hours each month in unproductive meetings and attend, on average, 11 – 15 meetings each week.
Bouncing between meetings at this rate means it’s hard to find the long stretches of uninterrupted time needed for deep, focused work.
One might combat this hindrance to focused time by initiating “no meeting days” each week, which are dedicated exclusively to focused work.
One way to protect your time is to initiate “no meeting days” each week. Another is to rethink whether that recurring meeting really needs to happen at all.
What is the cost of context switching?
The high cost of context switching is a very real thing, but we continue to do it on a regular basis. It has become something that we are so used to that we often don’t even realize we’re doing it.
On the surface, it seems so innocent – what’s so bad about answering that email quickly before hitting publish on the blog post you’re writing? It can’t possibly be a big deal to answer Sally’s question on Slack while you’re in that meeting; it’s a no-brainer you could answer in your sleep!
In reality, though, the cost of context switching is significant. All these small shifts that seem like no big deal really add up. Context switching has a negative impact on your productivity, of course, but the effect of context switching on the human brain actually goes much deeper than that.
The way we feel at work is negatively impacted by this behavior, as was proven by a study completed at the University of California, Irvine. The study investigated how we feel at work and found reports of significantly heightened stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure after only 20 minutes of repeated interruptions.
This is problematic because we are constantly interrupted in our daily lives. According to The Anatomy of Work Index, more than one-third of workers feel overwhelmed by the persistent ping of notifications.
It also gives us some staggering statistics explaining just how common context-switching is in our lives. When it comes to email and video calls, 42% and 40%of people are spending more time on them, respectively, than they were a year ago. 52% of respondents say they are multitasking during virtual meetings more than a year ago and 50% feel the need to respond immediately to notifications.
These context-switching statistics become even more pronounced when you look at generational differences. Millennials and Gen Z report feeling significantly more overwhelmed than workers overall.
The cost of context switching can include decreased productivity, short attention spans, wasted time, and burnout.
It should come as no surprise that switching back and forth between tasks makes us less productive – you’ve probably experienced days where you touch many, many tasks and by the end of the day haven’t fully completed a single one.
Human brains are simply not wired to tackle the amount of context switching we force onto them – according to The Workgeist Report ‘21, 45% of workers say that context switching makes them less productive and 43% say that switching between apps and tools frequently is very tiring.
Short attention spans
Your full attention does not follow you as you engage in context switching. As you switch from one task to the next, some of your attention remains on the original task, with the remainder following along to the next one.
As you can imagine, as more and more switches take place, the amount of attention you are left with diminishes significantly.
This is why you will find yourself having interjected reminders of the tasks that came before – which you still haven’t finished – while you are working on the latest activity.
Your attention is now divided amongst all the tasks you have touched rather than being focused on the task at hand. Context switching is not what the human brain was designed for, and it’s not ideal for productivity.
Waste of time
In a 2005 study by researchers at The University of California, Irvine, it was shown that it takes, on average, 25 minutes and 26 seconds to fully return to your work following an interruption.
When we apply that number to the number of interruptions experienced in a typical workday, what that leaves us with is literal hours each day of wasted time. Time spent doing nothing productive but rather attempting to pick up where we had left off.
There are also time costs to context switching that relate to the stress and fatigue that result from the behavior and cause inefficiencies and do-overs.
Context switching creates a vicious loop of too many tasks and interruptions coupled with stress and poor performance due to the volume of work. When we stay stuck in this loop, we continue to waste time.
In extreme cases: burnout
Our working memory is a necessary component of getting our work done, but it has a limit. We can only hold so much information in front of our minds at once, and we are constantly testing that limit when we spend our days context switching.
If you’ve ever found yourself rereading the same email multiple times to grasp the information it holds, you have likely experienced the phenomena of brain fog. This is a way of referring to the mental fatigue experienced by the human brain when context switching is taken to an unhealthy level.
Headaches, loss of motivation, and feeling drained and tired are all signs of burnout. These symptoms can easily begin to creep in when context switching becomes too prevalent in our day-to-day lives.
How to prevent context switching in the workplace?
Context switching isn’t inherently bad. It’s actually a good thing to have some level of context-switching happening, which is a relief because it’s nearly impossible to eradicate it from our lives.
The good news is you can implement strategies to help make sure that the context-switching you do is necessary and not done based on false urgency or other common culprits. Here are a few to try!
Create “focus boundaries” for the day
Focus time is two hours at a minimum of uninterrupted work time. It can be hard to get this time in amongst the notifications and interruptions that regularly pop up.
A good strategy is to block your time. Go through your calendar and identify a dedicated time for everything. Keep shallow tasks, like checking email and attending meetings, in blocks together and tasks requiring deeper, more focused work together. It’s the calendar version of “a place for everything and everything in its place.”
Some email clients and workplace calendars can even automatically schedule blocks of focus time on your calendar.
Set up “themed days”
If you are a manager or your role requires you to work across multiple teams, it may seem intimidating to block your time in such a specific way. If so, themed days might be a good choice to help you manage context switching.
With the themed days approach, you assign a function, purpose, or focus to each day in your week. It’s important to make sure you set these up in a way that works well for your specific needs – there isn’t necessarily a one size fits all answer here.
Would your week work well for you if you dedicated two days to teamwork, one to creative solo projects, and one day to admin?
Maybe themes like Dan Sullivan’s Free Days, Focus Days, and Buffer Days model would work for you. Try a few methods and see what works best for your unique situation.
Practice single-tasking throughout the day
Setting up your schedule to reduce the cost of context switching only works if you can train yourself to stick with one task for a sufficient amount of time to get into a period of focused work. It is certainly possible, but it takes some intentional habit-building.
Some of the habits that can support you in single-tasking are:
- Removing distractions
- Setting a timer (and starting small)
- Getting rid of energy drains and “almost done” tasks first
You can’t expect to fully reverse a bad habit like unnecessary context switching overnight, but you can take steps to improve it by creating new supportive habits.
Get rid of “attention residue”
In order to fully devote your attention to a new task, you have to have actually completed the last one. If you haven’t, part of your attention will stay on that unfinished task.
That leftover sticky piece is what’s referred to as “attention residue,” and it has been proven to be a detriment to starting new tasks.
So how can you get rid of “attention residue”? You can try batching similar tasks together – the human brain has a less difficult time with context switching between like tasks.
It can also be helpful to build-in routines and rituals to use when you switch tasks – these can act as buffers for your brain and give it a clear signal that it is time to switch gears, which can reduce “attention residue.”
Take regular breaks to recharge
We all have times of high and low energy throughout the day, and what you may notice is that your mind wanders when you are in a period of low energy. This puts you at risk for unintentional context switching, but you can head it off!
Taking short breaks throughout your day will help to keep your energy up and your mind on task.
In addition to your standard lunch and coffee breaks, taking microbreaks throughout the day is a great way to keep your energy up and your mind on task.
Microbreaks can look like a few moments of stretching, a walk around the block, or watching a funny or heartwarming video.
Incorporating breaks, however, is a great way to keep your energy up and your mind away from the temptation of unnecessary context-switching.
Disconnect from work at the end of the day
Context switching, and its effects on the human brain don’t exist exclusively within the confines of your work day.
If you don’t disconnect well from work at the end of the day, your brain will be tempted to linger on the activities that transpired, the things left undone, and the tasks awaiting you tomorrow. This can leave you feeling depleted and unable to achieve the focus you will need for the next day.
To make sure you have a clean break from work at the end of the day and can rest and recuperate for tomorrow’s tasks, there are some routines and tips to try.
Some people find organizing the work that’s incomplete at the day’s end by adding the relevant next steps to their calendar or to-do list to be a helpful way to stop the consistently running to-do list from taking up residence in their mind in the off hours.
Others find taking a look at the coming days and their assigned work to help them feel prepared and able to effectively shut work off at the end of the day. Still, others have taken to simply acknowledging that the workday is over and find that to be quite effective.
Find a method that works well for you and practice until it becomes a habit.
Take control of notifications
Get rid of unnecessary notifications
Do you actually need all of the notifications your phone and desktop send you? Probably not – and there are probably a few that you simply tune out at this point.
It’s a great idea to go through each app you have and assess whether to leave notifications on, turn them off altogether, or adjust the style of notification to be less of a distraction.
Let’s use Slack as an example of this. Turning off all of the app’s notifications is probably not a great idea, but there are certainly some channels that you don’t need to have push notifications for.
Silencing notifications on more social channels and keeping them on for direct messages and project-specific channels can go a long way in reducing disruptions while also allowing you to stay aware of the details you need to receive in real-time.
Completing this exercise with all of your apps can create a lot of beautiful silence in your day and significantly reduce unnecessary context switching.
Take advantage of “Do not disturb” mode
If shutting off notifications altogether makes you a bit nervous, but you still want to avoid the high cost of context switching, “Do not disturb” mode may serve you well.
With this function (available on both Android and iPhone) rather than silencing notifications from specific apps overall, you silence all notifications for a period of time.
If you are attempting the time-blocking strategy we discussed earlier, you might choose to use “do not disturb” mode during a block requiring deep and focused work, and rest assured that whatever notifications you believe to be necessary will still make their way to you over the rest of the day.
Plan time to check notifications
Just like you might schedule a time to check your email, it may be helpful to schedule a time to check your notifications. This approach reduces the immediate distraction caused by a notification because you know you have a dedicated block of time set aside to check them. It’s important to actually put this time into your calendar.
It is also best to note anything that you need to follow up on or take immediate action on that came from your notification checking.
Relying on your memory can be faulty of course but it also requires some attention to be used up worrying about the memory – since our whole objective is to minimize the divided attention that accompanies context switching, not writing these new tasks down would be counterproductive.
Context switching FAQs
Context switching is the act of toggling between various tasks, apps, and resources. Multitasking involves actively doing more than one task at a time.
For example, context switching might look like moving from your email to Slack to a phone call to a meeting and responding to a text message during a quiet spot in the meeting. Conversely, multitasking could look like formatting a report while participating in a group call.
Context switching can be a good thing in appropriate doses. Practicing the ability to switch between tasks and be attentive to various pieces of information can help us maintain focus over long periods of time.
Context switching is a challenge for the human brain. When we participate in elevated amounts of context switching our brains suffer mental fatigue, loss of attention, and feelings of overwhelm. The cost of unnecessary context switching is not insignificant.