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The true cost of context switching (and how to reclaim your focus)

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December 8, 2022
min read

A constantly refilling email inbox. Relentless Slack pings. Three back-to-back meetings. A dozen open tabs in your browser. Toggling between countless apps. Despite your best intentions at the beginning of the day, you’ve gotten repeatedly sucked into email and team chats, at the expense of more impactful work.

It’s now nearing 5pm, your project is due by the end of the day, and you’re nowhere near done. It seems like no matter how you tried, you just weren’t able to yourself on task for more than a few minutes at a time. Leaving you feeling guilty, stressed out and, frankly, miserable.

If this sounds familiar, you’ve likely fallen prey to context switching – the biggest productivity killer of them all.

Avoiding the heavy toll of context switching calls for equal parts mindset, habit and skill – all of which are entirely possible to cultivate over time. Here, we’ll dive into why context switching is something almost all of us struggle with, and what exactly you can do to reclaim your focus.

What is context switching?

In its simplest form, context switching means switching back and forth between several different, unrelated tasks.

This could be an intentional decision to switch gears, or you might have been distracted by something externally, like an email notification. Any time you abandon a task and move onto another one without completing the previous task, you’re context switching. And there’s a specific change that happens in your brain when you do.

Context switching originated as a computing term, referring to how computers pause a process in its current state and move on to a new one (effectively, multitasking). These switches don’t come without a cost – they consume a lot of resources. But they’re necessary for the operating system to effectively multitask.

For people, however, context switching comes at an even higher cost – and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to show that it just doesn’t work.

Why do we context switch?

While it might feel like our default way of working nowadays, context switching comes with some pretty far-reaching, detrimental consequences for our productivity and brain health. Before we take a look at how you can avoid context switching, let’s get into why it’s so prevalent.

Technology is designed to distract us

Context switching is largely the unhappy result of having too much technology and information at our fingertips. We use multiple apps every day for several different purposes – with it taking around 9.5 minutes to get back into a productive flow after switching between each app.

Instant messaging apps, project management tools and email – the digital revolution has made it more difficult than ever to carve out any interruption-free time at work, or even focus on a single task for an extended period of time.

We feel pressured to be “always on”

According to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index, 56% of us feel obligated to respond to notifications immediately. Chances are, every few minutes at work, you hear a ping or buzz from Slack or email. Something as small as giving a quick answer to a team member’s question while you’re working on a task might not feel like a big deal at that moment.

However, each of these context switches come with a cost much higher than you might think – research shows it takes about 23 minutes to get back into focus mode again.

How context switching impacts your work

Context switching makes you less productive

Put simply, it’s impossible to perform two cognitively challenging tasks at the same time. When we fall into context switching at work, our focus becomes completely fragmented, creating an endless build-up of attention residue – where we continue thinking about a past task even once we’ve moved onto another.

Context switching has huge consequences for our productive potential – eating as much as 40% of our productive time.

Context switching increases your cognitive load

Our brains work best when we focus on one thing at a time. Research has shown context switching has a negative impact on our working memory. Every time we switch contexts, we’re overloading our brains with more and more information.

It’s a lot harder than you might think to switch your brain back to focusing on your original task after an interruption, slowing your pace down and making you overall less efficient. A University of London study found that context switching can lead to a drop in IQ of up to 15 points – a bit like pulling an all-nighter.

Context switching results in lower-quality work

Excessive context switching means no single task gets our full, undivided attention – we simply don’t have the mental space for deep thinking.

We spend the limited capacity of our attention on a multitude of low-value “shallow tasks”, exhausting our brains with decision fatigue and low-reward work. The deep work required to solve complex, important problems becomes practically impossible.

How to cut down on context switching

We all feel pressure to squeeze as many tasks as we can into our to-do lists. But being overloaded with too many things to do just makes us more distracted, and less productive. In the face of all of this, falling into the trap of continuous context switching might seem inevitable.

But, while most distractions are not in our control, how we deal with them is in our control. This kind of focus doesn’t happen overnight – it takes practice and determination. But there are a few concrete strategies you can put in place over the course of your working day to help you break free of your context-switching habit.

1. Get tasks out of your brain

The Zeigarnik effect refers to our tendency to remember interrupted and unfinished tasks more than finished ones. Because our brains are hardwired to look for closure, we tend to ruminate over the deliverables we have yet to get off our plates in the future, rather than what we’re supposed to be focusing on in the here and now.

One way to counteract this negative effect is simply through compiling a to-do list – studies show that making a concrete plan to return to tasks later helps combat the Zeigarnik effect.

2. Make your priorities clear

Find yourself running around putting out other peoples’ fires all day? We all like to be helpful and lend a hand to a colleague when they need it – it can feel hard to say no in the moment – but remember what’s important, and what’s not. It’s not your job or your responsibility to prioritize other people’s work over your own – or get wrapped up in trivial tasks that might be urgent but actually have little inherent value and don’t impact on your end goals.

If you’re not sure which task you should be giving your attention to at certain moments, the Eisenhower matrix is a great tool for visualizing all of your tasks in terms of their relative urgency and importance. When in doubt, use it to decide whether a task is worth putting at the top of your list or should fall to the bottom of your priorities.

3. Schedule your day in time blocks

The first and the most important thing that can help you avoid context switching is to plan your day in advance. When you know what you’re doing next, the chances of getting derailed by something are already significantly reduced.

Dig deeper: Getting Things Done (GTD): What it is and how it works

Certain types of tasks call for you to spend extended periods in a creative “flow” state, so setting aside periods of time for uninterrupted deep work should always be your priority. This is when you produce the work that’s most important to you – not just because it tends to be of a higher standard, but because it involves the complex problem that moves your career forward. So build that concentration muscle by scheduling periods of deep work into each week, scaling the length of sessions over time to access your peak cognitive performance. Some ways to build focus time into your working day include:

  • Time blocking: This involves splitting your calendar into blocks of time dedicated to designated tasks. This method is a great way to ensure you give each different piece of work its due attention, so task value stays proportional to effort.
  • Task batching: Smaller or similar tasks, like responding to emails, can be batched together and tackled in one go, reducing the amount of times you have to shift your attention at work. A time management system like the Pomodoro technique is a great way to get your mind in the zone and crank these lesser to-dos out once and for all. It involves working for 25 minutes on one predefined task, followed by a short break.

4. Identify common distractions

A distraction at the wrong time can derail the progress of a task and ruin hours of hard work. We all have moments when our willpower wanes, and when your phone vibrates, a Slack notification pings, or an email professing to be “URGENT!” flashes up, it’s natural to want to check it out. So combat this by unplugging as often as you can.

And set up your work environment to support you when you’re in focus mode. Close down your email. Exit out of any web pages when you’re done reading them. Pause those Slack notifications or set your stats as away. Put your phone out of sight or turn it upside down when you’re focusing on an important task.

We also recommend looking at ways to better integrate your most commonly used tools at work. The more you can avoid toggling from program to app, the more likely you’ll be able to stay productive and on task.

5. Take breaks away from your computer screen

While the temptation is always there just to power through with a piece of work, our productivity naturally tends to wane as the day goes on, with most of us hitting a low point some time in the early afternoon.

There’s plenty of research, though, that backs the importance of taking meaningful breaks at work. So, even if you only have a small amount of time to spare, be sure to set aside time in the day to step away from your tasks and recharge and refresh your mind. And protect that time just as you would a meeting.

6. Don’t respond to everything as soon as it comes in

In our hyper-connected digital world, disconnecting – even if only for half a day – isn’t always an option. If that’s the case for your work, set a specific time of day for managing Slack and email, and make sure people know when they can expect you to respond.

This simple practice helps contain the shallow tasks that eat into your thinking space and actively stops you from being at everyone’s beck and call. It doesn’t mean communication isn’t important – it simply helps it become more productive and thoughtful.

Parting words

Many of us juggle a lot of different responsibilities at work, managing emails and client relationships, reporting and presenting, and planning simultaneously. But having many different hats at work isn’t the real problem here – it’s that we’re trying to wear them all at the same time.

If you’re going to try and rewire any of your unproductive habits this year, start with context switching.

The original version of this article was published in
September 2022
It was most recently updated in
December 2022
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