Project & Resource Management

Increase Your Productivity by Unlearning Context Switching Habits

Forecast mascot Nova (robot) being given multiple different pieces of work at once, having to context switch and becoming stressed as a result.

Most of us can relate to feeling a bit worn out at the end of a challenging week at work. But warning bells should begin to ring when stress leads to sleepless nights, tiredness becomes a constant sense of fatigue, and you finish workdays no longer feeling a sense of accomplishment but looking at a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter.

If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you may have developed a bad habit of context switching too often.

What is Context Switching?

Context switching is when you stop one task and move on to another — before returning to the original task (or another altogether). The term comes from the method computer operating systems use to run multiple processes at once. When you close Teams to open up Outlook, the computer reallocates processing power to the newly opened app, pausing Teams until you return.

During busy days at work, humans attempt to do something similar. Here’s how context switching looks for us:

You open your laptop and see an email from your boss. Halfway through writing a response, a colleague calls asking for a project status update. Even though the call lasted less than five minutes, you can’t remember what you were doing before. Instead of returning to the email, you begin writing a proposal for a new project. An instant message pops up — it’s your boss again. You hurriedly complete the email from earlier and send it, leaving the proposal unfinished. Then you read the instant message; you need to join a last-minute meeting! While in the meeting, you think about the proposal instead of concentrating.

If you think that sounds a little exhausting, it’s because it is. While computers can context switch ad infinitum, humans are less adept at working in this way. Plus, there’s the added complication of attention residue, which is when you can’t concentrate on the task at hand because other jobs have been left unfinished. Unlike computers, humans can’t seamlessly switch between tasks without taking a huge hit to our productivity.

Why Do We Context Switch?

Long story short: people context switch because they have to.

Context switching is a necessity in any job. Being responsive when colleagues need you is important for collaboration, and few jobs allow one task to be the focus of the entire day.

However, the way we work in 2022 is rife with distractions. Advancements in technology mean we must rely on dozens of different apps to get basic jobs done. A recent study shows that 43% of workers feel they spend too much time switching between different online tools and applications.

We context switch because modern working isn’t designed to facilitate focused work. If you’re constantly switching between dozens of apps, from email to CRM tools, and are expected to be always available, when is any work meant to get done? 

Context Switching vs. Multitasking

Is context switching the same thing as multitasking? Yes and no. Essentially, context switching is what happens when you multitask.

The Downsides of Context Switching Too Often

 

Context Switching is Mentally Exhausting and Can Lead to Burnout

Fragmented working is mentally taxing and can lead to poor performance. In fact, 43% of people say switching between tasks causes fatigue, according to Qatalog and Cornell University’s Ellis Idea Lab

When multiple tasks are worked on concurrently, the brain has to retain information relating to all those tasks. That’s a lot more tiring than just remembering the information needed to complete one task!

Even switching between three relatively simple tasks can be mentally exhausting. Unfortunately, many jobs see workers juggling multiple highly complex and unrelated tasks, which leads to high-stress levels and mental fatigue. This is especially true when tasks are left in a state of mid-completion.

Context Switching Reduces Focus

Deep focus is key to getting work done in time and to a high standard. Distractions brought by incoming calls and pinging inboxes are great for preventing deep focus from being reached.

There’s a huge ‘tax’ associated with context switching. Here are the two ways this impacts productivity:

  • Quality is reduced because of attention residue. If you’re only half-present in meetings or unable to concentrate on the task at hand because another priority or outstanding job is proving a distraction, the quality of work will suffer.

Context Switching Increases the Risk of Making Mistakes

Juggling one ball is easy. Two or three are manageable with a bit of practice. But what happens when more balls are added? Well, a few will probably end up getting dropped.

When 20 different tasks, apps, or stressors are being juggled at once, the risk of a mistake being made rises. This is because our brains aren’t wired to handle that much information all at once. Every email, message, call, report, and ad hoc project provides more information to absorb and understand. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to do it all.

Research suggests we can reliably remember between three and seven pieces of information simultaneously. When we try and handle more, the brain’s ability to function is suppressed, leading to forgotten critical information and mistakes.

Signs You’re Context Switching Too Often

While these ways of working are normalized in many workplaces, that doesn’t make them sustainable. Here are some key signs you need to revisit how you engage with work.

You’re Always Busy but Never Tick Tasks off the To-do List

Constantly feeling rushed off your feet with little to show for it? That’s likely due to context switching.

Frequent switching between emails, messages, calls, and actual work can make you feel busy, but it doesn’t mean tasks are getting completed. They often end up half-done or, worse still, shunted to tomorrow’s to-do list.

You Feel Frazzled and Burnt Out

Likewise, constantly feeling burnt out is a sign of trying to do too much at once. While work can be stressful and tiring, you shouldn’t finish the working day without enough energy to cook dinner or walk the dog.

This can lead to mistakes, key project details being forgotten, or even make you feel like tasks you’ve done a thousand times are impossibly difficult to begin.

While many factors can lead to burnout at work, reducing the amount you context switch could help boost concentration and regain mental capacity. 

You Miss Critical Deadlines

Project resourcing doesn’t usually factor in time for context switching. In many workplaces, employees are expected to get their core work done and attend daily briefings, all-hands, and team catch-ups. While a project manager may allocate a designer 35 hours in a week to complete a task, they may only end up spending 18 hours designing due to context switching and other distractions.

If you or your team frequently miss project deadlines, it may be worth looking into how much time everyone is actually spending on their projects.

You Often Find Yourself Procrastinating Complex Tasks

This may seem counterintuitive, but humans don’t always behave logically. After all, we’re not computers, which is why context switching doesn’t work for us.

If easy tasks suddenly feel impossible, or you keep deferring tasks to the next day (or later), the tax of context switching may be too much.

Three Ways to Combat Context Switching

Realizing you’re wasting precious time and energy by context switching? Join the club. Here are three ways to unlearn context switching habits and bolster your productivity.

Turn Off Distractions

‘Don’t Disturb’ exists for a reason. Try disabling notifications, working in a private room away from distractions, or leaving devices in another room for a chunk of the day. With fewer distractions coming from calls, emails, and messages, you can get more done. Most employees check their emails or instant messages every six minutes.

Time Blocking

Time blocking works by planning out the day or week ahead by adding to-do list tasks to your calendar. This provides a visual schedule for the working day and can also be used to show when you’re in focused working mode.

We recommend batching related tasks together; this guides your workflow and can help speed up recovery time after breaks. For example, if you have a project status review at 2pm, we’d suggest blocking out the 30 minutes afterward to write up any notes and complete key actions.

Create a Prioritized To-Do List

Last but not least, create a prioritized to-do list. There are many ways to prioritize your to-do list, so we’ll keep this simple.

We recommend beginning with the "Eat the Frog" technique: start the day with the most challenging task on your list. Set aside time first thing to tackle this task until complete; you’ll not only get the satisfaction of completing a major task but won’t be distracted by its imposing presence for the rest of the day.

Then, batch all related tasks together. This is called chunking and requires related tasks to be worked on in one go, helping encourage focus and reduce mental strain.

Lastly, be realistic about what can be achieved in a day. If you know you’ll attend numerous meetings that’ll eat up three hours of the day, factor this in when planning. That leaves roughly four hours for all other tasks, so don’t expect yourself to be able to achieve more than that timeframe allows.

How Forecast Can Help Limit the Need for Context Switching

While we can’t stop your inbox from being flooded with urgent help requests, we can help get more done faster with fewer apps.

Forecast is the all-in-one project management tool that helps you look after project resourcing, finances, and task progression in one place — no more switching between five different apps or getting lost in dozens of browser tabs.

We help you concentrate on the task at hand with easy-to-use dashboards. Plus, automated resourcing and project planning take at least three tasks off your to-do list.

To kick context switching to the curb and increase your productivity, sign up for a 14-day free trial of Forecast here.

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