Context switching is when we shift our attention between different tasks, apps, or projects. It’s harmful to our work, making us less productive and more stressed. But it’s not inevitable. Here, we’ll dive deeper into what context switching is and show you nine ways to combat it.
Most of us start and end our work days with apps, tools, and resources. We check our Slack messages, click over to our email inboxes, review our digital task lists, and fire up our operating system. And that’s just within half an hour. This bouncing around between different tasks, tools, and resources is called context switching, and it’s how we spend a lot of our time.
Thankfully, there are some ways we can combat context switching. Let’s take a deeper dive into what context switching is, the true costs, and how we can take back our attention span.
Context switching is when you hop between different tasks, apps, or projects. It’s normal—we’re all doing it—but we spend so much time jumping between social media, communication apps, and project management software that there’s not much productive time and space left for deep work. This distraction tax hurts productivity and increases overwhelm, making us simultaneously more stressed and less productive.
The reason for all this moving around is simple: there’s too much demand on our attention. According to the 2022 Anatomy of Work Index, over half of workers (56%) feel that they have to respond to notifications immediately. Additionally, workers are switching between nine apps per day, and they feel overwhelmed by them. Which makes sense—nine apps is a lot to juggle.
These tools and technologies are designed to make work easier, faster, and smarter. But too many disconnected apps have the opposite of the intended effect— they slow everything down and make work more complicated.
Context switching and multitasking can both have a negative impact on your work, but they’re slightly different. Context switching involves rapidly moving between different items. Usually, this happens before you’re done with your current work. For example, you're mid-way through a project brief when your boss assigns you a new task to pull a status report. Instead of finishing the brief, you switch and start on the report right away.
Multitasking, on the other hand, is when you’re attempting to complete multiple tasks at the same time. Using the above example, if you were multitasking you'd work on both the project brief and the status report at the same time, flipping back and forth between the two. Both can impact your work, with the Anatomy of Work Index reporting that more than half of workers multitask during meetings.
The cost of context switching is high, but we're so used to doing it that sometimes we don’t even realize it’s happening. What's the harm of answering one email before diving back into that report I was working on? What's the matter with sending a quick Slack question in the middle of a meeting?
In reality, context switching has a negative impact on how we feel at work. A study from the University of California, Irvine concluded that after only 20 minutes of repeating interruptions, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.
Which is a problem, because we’re constantly interrupted. The Anatomy of Work Index found that over a third of workers feel overwhelmed by persistent pings.
And according to the metrics, we’re spending a lot of time on context switching:
42% are spending more time on email than one year ago
40% are spending more time on video calls than one year ago
52% are multitasking during virtual meetings more than one year ago
56% feel they need to respond immediately to notifications
This gets even more pronounced when you look at different generations, with millennials and Gen Z feeling significantly more overwhelmed than workers overall.Download the 2022 Anatomy of Work Index
The future of work doesn’t have to be filled with burnt out, overwhelmed team members juggling a dozen different apps and task switching every other minute. You can set yourself and your team up for success with some simple mindset shifts and a bit of structure. Here are nine tips to help combat context switching:
1. Use do not disturb: Give employees permission to use do not disturb modes or calendar blocks for focused work.
2. Use integrations: Streamline commonly used business tools to focus your team's efforts, reducing time and the need for context switching.
3. Improve collaboration: Create more cross-functional teams that can work together without being slowed down by work about work. By using tools that foster asynchronous communication, you can reduce the amount of time spent alternating between varying messaging platforms and emails.
4. Consolidate tools: Consolidate apps and tools into one centralized platform, such as a work management platform, to make information, communication, and workflows accessible in a single tool.
5.Practice time management techniques: Try productivity tools, such as the Pomodoro technique where you set recurring work blocks and breaks in a sequential order. These structured time blocks limit distractions and encourage complete focus on the task at hand.
6. Prioritize tasks: Use a task prioritization method that keeps your work engaging enough to ward off distractions. Try different techniques to see what best fits your work. For example, the chunking method designed to batch similar tasks together and keep focus for longer.
7. Connect work to goals: Ladder each single task back to larger goals and initiatives. This synchronous process keeps you focused to reduce context switching. Plus, it has the added benefit of marking progress towards long-term goals and showing you how your day-to-day tasks are important.
8. Schedule coworking time: Use remote work software to host virtual coworking sessions or gather for them in person if you’re able. This face-time limits distractions because it’s harder to respond to a message when you’re mid-conversation.
Context switching has become a normal part of the workday. At times, it seems like you can’t go 30 seconds without hearing a notification ding. There is a constant battle for your attention, but with clear boundaries and a supportive manager, you can enjoy the peace of mind that comes from focused work.
Want to learn more about how we work? Read our full Anatomy of Work report for the latest findings and research on work in 2022.Download the 2022 Anatomy of Work Index