By Grace Lau
Even the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once lamented the urge to take on too many tasks at once. How quaint it now seems in an age before engines of distraction like social media.
Today, we similarly bemoan our lot at work – and then some.
Our technology is positively designed to enable our zigzagging between competing tasks.
Think about a company looking to nail how to manage a remote team, for example.
Having the right remote collaboration tools is essential.
However, one sometimes hidden downside is that workers are always on.
And plenty of research testifies to the immense toll this impulse to toggle between tasks and projects has on our productivity.
This article explores the dangers of context switching and offers some solutions.
What is context switching?
Context switching is when you flit back-and-forth between tasks at work, stopping one thing and starting another.
The terms “task switching” or “context switching” came to be used instead of multitasking because they better reflect how redirecting our attention so often detracts from the actual performing of the tasks.
With the endless stream of distractions, open tabs into double figures, and a growing to-do list, it’s clear our attention is in danger of becoming just as fragmented as our workdays.
Why do we context switch?
Why is it that, for us, context switching is fast becoming like water to a fish?
Today’s workers are increasingly incentivized to be responsive and “always on”. In contrast, workers in the past focused much more on any task before moving on to another.
Not pinging but drowning
Digital tools have transformed our work environments. For example, one of the first things new startups often do after buying a domain name is get a dedicated cloud-based phone system to unify their communications in one platform.
That’s because built-in features like instant messaging and video conferencing can help you get the most out of your business.
On the other hand, the proliferation of new connections and the expectation to respond to notifications can divert our attention. These tools help workers keep up in the digital landscape but inevitably increase the number of interruptions that can derail them from focusing on the task at hand.
Loss of attention
At the level of our human neurobiology, we crave novelty. Nicholas Carr explained in The Shallows how our brain adapts in response to the changes technological innovation has wrought in our environments.
Sure, new tech empowers us to connect with others and take advantage of the opportunities for remote work. But it’s a double-edged sword, allowing us to access novel information while diminishing our ability to focus and process information.
We welcome each fresh interruption as a new piece of valuable information and pay the cost with our beleaguered attention.
What’s more, our tools tap directly into our brain’s love of novelty. The chemical dopamine it produces in response to such unpredictable stimuli primes us to want more.
In response, companies can support employees with stress-busting tips and measures to reduce context switching to take their corporate social responsibility seriously. The effects CSR can have on a business are real. Fulfilling it means happier workers, more likely to stay with their current company..
The dangers of context switching
Being assailed by so many stimuli scrambles our decision-making processes, so much so that when we look to pick up where we left off in a previous task after an interruption, it can take around 23 minutes to regain focus. These costs soon add up and prove detrimental to your ability to perform at your stellar best. Context switching can be a wrecking ball to productivity, reducing it by 40%.
Think of the curse of ecommerce business owners, whose customer’s attention is one new notification away from being stolen, leaving an abandoned digital cart. Workers are just as vulnerable to getting distracted by the same avalanche of information. Context switching taxes their ability to enter the flow state they need to do their best work.
As human beings, we are limited in how much we can hold in working memory. It’s no surprise then that juggling between various tabs and messages can impede our cognitive function by 10 IQ points.
The anxiety and stress of moving busily between too many tasks can foreshorten our ability to see the big picture. We enter “survival mode” and try to accomplish any task to reduce stress. Typically, however, we go for low-hanging fruit such as email, taking us away from prioritizing high-value tasks.
How can we solve the problem of context switching?
Context switching can be a silent killer, and its effects can catch us off guard. How do you reclaim your focus?
Work on your capacity to shelve the urge to context switch and do only one task at a time.
Capture tasks on a to-do list
According to The Zeigarnik Effect, humans are hardwired to ruminate on incomplete tasks. Familiar? Well, make a plan to commit to doing it later to stop it bugging you now. Merely thinking about an interrupted task hijacks our efforts to stay present.
Rework your schedule
Context switching has become such a problem that it eats into the time that highly skilled workers get to use their skills most productively. So, for example, software developers spend a startlingly low 41% of their workday doing software development. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to improve productivity at work. Here are a few simple methods for changing your schedule and increasing your time for work that needs your sustained attention:
Time blocking is a systematic approach to assigning tasks to each block of time in your schedule. Context switching depletes your focus and has an outsized impact in reducing the overall time you have to complete the things that are important. Having a more organized time-blocked schedule helps you immerse yourself in that one thing and let go of stress.
Batch your tasks by grouping similar activities and performing them together. This way, there’s less attention residue – the hangover that occurs when people need to stop thinking about one task to focus on another. Get in a specific mode and stay there.
Some professionals need to react to situations while doing their other work. And crucial context needed for working across multiple teams can get lost due to interruptions. Theme your schedule and allocate different days for different types of tasks to claw back some time.
Investigate habits and learn to single-task
It’s vital to look at habits you’ve fallen into. Most people are familiar with the self-reproach correlated with too much mindless context switching.
Happily, thanks to neuroplasticity, we can build habits that allow us to stick to our revised schedule with a singular focus.
And they will hold back the tide of distraction. Think of it like building muscle at the gym.
When you’re getting ready to do deep focus, proactively remove as many distractions as possible. For example, place your phone in another room.
Tackle your to-do list
It’s also helpful to complete the little unfinished tasks – such as unanswered emails. Again, removing these drains on your ability to focus makes for a more manageable workday.
Start where you are and use a timer
Start small if your attention span has been depleted through chronic context switching. Use a timer to set modest goals and keep yourself accountable.
Routines and rituals
When you need to get down to some demanding work, rituals that signal that you need to switch gears to perform challenging tasks can help.
Take real, regular breaks
Don’t forget to step back and enjoy your breaks as opportunities to recharge.
Grab a cup of coffee. Use the time to stretch out your body. Do a few pushups. Take these microbreaks to replenish dwindling energy levels that could otherwise cause your mind to wander.
Properly refresh at home
And the advice extends to non-work hours. Research some popular strategies to disconnect from your work at the end of the day and master the transition to non-work mode. For example, set reminders after you’ve looked ahead to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything important. Ensuring you get a good night’s sleep can help boost productivity.
As meditation teachers say, every moment of mindfulness counts, so practicing even a few minutes a day can help you calmly and resourcefully do what needs to be done.
Revert to asynchronous communication
Iimagine you’re on a team meeting video call. You’d need to be familiar with muting and know how to unmute microphone buttons to minimize background noise when someone is trying to speak. So take similar care when approaching communication with colleagues on other channels.
One of the best ways to connect is through a video call. And in the time of remote working, companies can use remote collaboration tools to boost team productivity. For example, they can weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of telepresence vs video conferencing solutions that allow companies to run increasingly immersive meetings smoothly and robustly from afar.
Still, don’t reach for such tools on every occasion you need to communicate with colleagues. Consider defaulting to asynchronous methods instead, such as emails or direct messaging, to respect other people’s time.
Step by step
In the modern workplace, it’s so easy to get caught up with competing demands and give in to the myth of multitasking.
But you can avert the dangers of context switching. Learn how to focus on one thing at a time.
Follow these methods to protect your productivity.
If you’re still with us.
About the Author
Grace Lau is the Director of Growth Content at Dialpad, an AI-powered cloud communication platform for better and easier team collaboration. She has over 10 years of experience in content writing and strategy. Currently, she is responsible for leading branded and editorial content strategies, partnering with SEO and Ops teams to build and nurture content.