Context Switching and Productivity

by Ruhma Syed
Switching and Productivity between apps and tasks causes hindrance in one’s attention. Every time we do it, a part of our attention is left behind. Context switching has its cost. So what exactly is context switching and how does it affect our productivity? What can you do to avoid it?

Context Switching

Context switching has its origins in the field of computing. You see, operating systems run multiple processes. Every time we switch apps, our computers shunt processing power from one task to another meanwhile putting the first one on hold. The thing about technology is that it is built to be this way. It can handle context switching without losing attention or without an effect on its efficiency. On the other hand, our brains aren’t built to be this way. Every time we toggle from one task to another, our attention is diverted, time is wasted and productivity is killed. Say you’re working on something important and a new email notification pops up. You rush to see who that might be from or if it’s about something important. When you do this, you switch contexts from the work to your inbox. When you come back to your work, you realize your attention isn’t the same as it was before you switched tasks. This little bit of the residual attention makes it harder for you to focus on the work, let alone finish it on time. Sophie LeRoy, a researcher from the University of Minnesota, describes the effect of interruptions this way: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task. The thicker the residue, the worse the performance.” Facts tell us you’ll need about 25 minutes to regain focus on a task after an interruption of even 3 minutes. A Microsoft study found that ‘the more time in email and face-to-face interaction, and the more total screen switches, the less productive people feel at the day’s end.’ All of this diverted attention makes it harder for anyone to focus on one thing which ultimately results in mental exhaustion and a feeling of being less productive throughout the day. But why do we switch context? And why is it so hard to stay focused? A few reasons are: All the dings from notifications, the unread badges and symbols on apps are likely to interrupt us amidst our work. As Recode writes: “The problem is, sending a message is much easier than figuring out how to get fewer messages or finding and enabling the software’s various options that could make you more productive. Rescue Time stated that a worker is likely to check notifications, messages or email every 6 minutes. Even if we don’t check it right away, it stays on our mind and diverts our attention enough to hinder focus on our work. According to Okta, an average executive’s yearly communication has risen from about 1000 in the 1970s to over 30,000 in the 2010s. Various apps, computer scientists and softwares are struggling to manage this information overload. Our brain adapts in response to changes in our environment including technology innovations. As a result, we gain and lose certain skills. As Nicholas Carr writes:
“Each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information… And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us, in ever more and different ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

The Cons of Context Switching

When our brain receives multiple stimuli at the same time by context switching, it kills productivity, impedes the process of thinking and decision making. Not only does it take its toll on these processes, it also wastes our time. Any distraction in what we’re doing can take up to 40% of a person’s productive time. Secondly, every time we switch contexts with whatever we’re already dealing with, our cognitive functioning is hindered. An average human can store up to 3 to 7 pieces of information at a given time. Context switching takes away the brain space we need to retain and process the information we were already dealing with. In fact, people who try to juggle messages and work see an IQ decline of 10. Lastly, when we switch contexts between multiple tasks, our attention is heavily disturbed. When our attention is split, we struggle to integrate fragmented information into cohesive task structures that make sense.

How to Prevent Context Switching

When we think of doing another task, it makes it harder for us to focus on what we’re currently doing. Just thinking will split the attention because our brain is wired this way. To avoid this, assign a specific place to add or organize your tasks. When we have too many apps to go between, we have to dig around to figure out what we need to do, which leads to context switching. And, when our digital spaces are cluttered, it takes up space in our heads too. By designating a place for all your tasks, you will give your brain some rest, which will help you to focus and pay attention to your tasks better. Studies show, making a plan to finish a task later, stops the brain from repetitive thoughts about the task. Here’s what you can do to reduce context switching and increase productivity:
  • Prioritize your tasks. Focus on one thing at a time or the thing that is to be done immediately. Remoty lets you set priorities without the need of switching contexts.
  • Have a go-to framework for prioritizing tasks
  • Give your tasks grading from high priority to low priority, and finish the ones that are to be done first.
  • Set Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)
  • De-clutter your digital life so you have fewer screens or apps to work on
  • Integrate with various tools
  • Install apps that are made to make your work life easier. (Remoty is one!)

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