The high cost of context switching and what to do instead

Marlo Oster
April 20, 2022
5
Minutes

Whether you believe in multitasking or not, there’s a good chance you get caught up in it throughout your day due to a constant bombardment of distractions and interruptions. Context switching may feel like you’re getting more done, but it’s an illusion that leads to working without making progress, more frequent mistakes, stress, and burnout.

This post will cover what context switching is, the cost of multitasking, and what you can do to prevent context switching at work.

What is context switching?

Context switching is a computing term that’s been co-opted to describe human behavior. In computing, context switching is a key feature of a multitasking operating system. It’s the process of storing a thread or process so that it can be continued later. It’s what allows multiple programs to share a single central processing unit (CPU). 

But when it’s applied to humans, context switching refers to multitasking; when we try to do too many things at once or constantly jump around between disparate tasks. For example, when you’re writing an article, but then jump over to Slack to check your notifications, and then jump back to your work. You’ve just rapidly changed gears back and forth in your brain. No harm done, right? Not exactly; the CPU of a computer was built to switch programs seamlessly—our brains were not. 

Are there benefits of context switching?

That’s not to say that all context switching is bad. We need to switch contexts multiple times every day. For example, say you’re at a family gathering. The casual way you speak to your siblings very likely isn’t the same way you speak to your aging grandma or your little nieces and nephews. Depending on the age of the person you’re speaking with, you will (hopefully 😬) alter your language to fit the appropriateness of the different contexts you’re pulled into. 

We do the same thing when we’re driving. After exiting the highway, do you maintain your speed, or do you switch your driving style and slow down when you reach a residential street? In these cases, and many more like them, our ability to switch contexts is certainly a benefit. 

However, in the context of work, context switching has very few benefits—unless constantly feeling and appearing scattered, frazzled, and busy are benefits.😅  Jumping between tasks may make us feel like we’re optimizing our time and getting as much done as possible, but by not focusing on one task at a time, we’re left with several half-finished or barely started tasks at the end of the day. And the risk of making a mistake is much higher.

This scattershot approach is ineffective because it isn’t targeted. How can you hit the bullseye if you’re aiming at five different targets at once?

How does context switching affect productivity?

Research shows that, for most of us, it’s actually impossible to multitask—our brains simply don’t work that way. One study found that only 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively. Human beings are wired to only focus on one task at a time. So, when we try to do too many things at once or frequently switch tasks, our productivity suffers, and we’re much more likely to make a mistake. 

Context switching greatly inhibits our ability to focus. When we’re right in the middle of writing a report and we get a Slack notification, we get distracted. Consequently, our focus is pulled somewhere other than the task at hand. Reading the Slack message may only take a few moments, but that distraction lingers. According to a popular study by the University of California Irvine, “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.

Those are 23 minutes you will not be able to spend productively because your brain needs that time to get back into gear. Just like a computer, our brains lag when we have too many tabs open at one time. Switching tasks means your brain has to work even harder, which will result in you feeling more tired and burnt out by the end of the day. This is largely because our brains can only hold so much information “in mind” at a time

If you’re constantly overworking your brain in the short term without accomplishing anything meaningful, it will lead to burnout in the long term. 

How to minimize context switching

Prioritize tasks

In order to minimize context switching, you need to set clear priorities. What is your most important task of the day? What’s the first thing you need to do in order to accomplish that? Focus your attention on that one thing, and do not allow yourself to get sidetracked by the tasks that matter less. 

For those of us who struggle to plan out our days, this is easier said than done. But keep in mind what Benjamin Franklin once said: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” 

Take the time to plan out your day and prioritize your tasks in advance. Ideally, set your priorities at the end of the previous day so that you can get to your most important tasks first thing.

The next time you’re tempted by an email or Slack message, remember that those are forms of asynchronous communication, meaning you do not need to check on them right away. Stick to your priorities in order to minimize context switching. 

📚 Learn more about the benefits of asynchronous communication.  

Block off uninterrupted time for deep focus

Slack has made communication with our coworkers extremely simple; no matter where we work from, whenever we need anything, our coworkers are just a message away. But as you know, this has caused people to overuse Slack, and it’s prompted an ‘always-on’ mindset, which inevitably leads to context switching. Whenever a coworker messages us, we feel a need to drop what we’re doing and respond. 

When you have a big task ahead of you, you won’t be able to accomplish it without deep focus. Deep focus is a state of concentration that’s free of distractions, where all of your attention is laser-focused on the task at hand. 

Deep focus is also something that’s nearly impossible to find if you don’t intentionally create time for it in your schedule. Whether you work from home or the office, from social media notifications to too many meetings to your own distractible mind, distractions are everywhere. 

Block off time in your schedule that’s reserved for deep focus. Make sure you don’t have any meetings scheduled around that time. To make these deep focus sessions work, let anyone sharing your space know what you’re trying to accomplish, turn over your phone, mute Slack, and invest in some noise-canceling headphones. 

Manage notifications

Of course, your deep focus won’t be maintained if you don’t manage your notifications. For many of us, this is no easy task. If you’re constantly bombarded with notifications from a variety of different apps, visit your notification settings and get rid of anything unnecessary. When you add new apps, do not allow them to send you notifications. Both iPhones and Androids also have Do Not Disturb settings that can help you manage distractions. 

If you struggle to avoid social media without notifications, you may need a little extra help—which is perfectly okay! In these cases, you can invest in distraction blockers that take the choice out of your hands. You can customize website blockers to prohibit your ability to access certain websites during certain hours of the day. 

It’s pretty hard to switch contexts when you’re locked out of every other context besides the task right in front of you. 

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