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How to Avoid the Negative Effects of Context Switching?

Context switching reduces productivity. And it’s not your fault. At least not like this.

In today’s office environment, there are countless distractions – tasks, communications, meetings – pulling your attention in different directions. Even a single task is often spread across multiple digital spaces as you switch between tools and work with different documents to complete it.

Distractions outside of work, such as social media or doing laundry when working from home, are also not conducive to focus.

In fact, you have to refocus and readjust every time you make a change to pick up where you left off. Some studies have shown that it takes an average of nine and a half minutes to return to the starting point after changing tasks. In other studies, this time has been set at 23 minutes.

This phenomenon is called context switching.

Table of Content

1. What Is Context Switching?

2. The Cost of Context Switching for Productivity

3. Four Tricks to Avoid the Negative Effects of Contextual Change

3.1. Talk Openly About the Changing Environment

3.2. Review Productivity Patterns

3.3. Use Techniques to Increase Productivity

3.4. Promote A Healthy Meeting Culture

4. Conclusion

What Is Context Switching?

Context switching is switching between tasks or tools before completing the current task. Examples of context switching include checking and responding to an email while working on a quarterly report or interrupting your work during a meeting.

This shifts your attention in different directions and creates cognitive stress. Either way, change the context and react, and the inertia of working on active tasks suddenly disappears, wasting valuable time and energy.

Moreover, in today’s work world, two things rarely compete for your attention. Instant messaging platforms, project management tools, and emails are examples of constantly active items that challenge our daily workflow and distract us from real, value-added work.

However, our brains are not adapted to such tasks and our working memory is very limited. Therefore, rushing between different contexts for long periods of time can quickly lead to mental fatigue and decreased productivity.

This translates into decreased productivity. For example, even if you turn off all social media and focus 100% on your work, it can be difficult to stay productive if your day feels like a hodgepodge of different tasks.

The Cost of Context Switching for Productivity and Employees

Constantly switching from one task to another not only consumes a lot of energy and reduces productivity, but can also have a negative impact on personal well-being. So there are two main ways that context switching can negatively impact you and your team

  • Decreased productivity – it takes time to get back on track after a distraction and this time is rarely factored into work planning. As a result, tasks take longer to complete due to the change in context, which means less work can get done during the day, and the overall quality of work suffers as employees lose their train of thought and rush to complete tasks.
  • Increased mental fatigue – research shows that most professionals spend less than two minutes on a task before being interrupted, and 43% report that switching between tasks is tiring. Constantly switching between contexts can make each task more tedious and time-consuming, which can lead to overwork and burnout through no fault of your own. These two issues are among the most pressing problems in today’s office environment.

While a certain amount of context switching and multitasking is inevitable in every workplace, managers and team leaders must be aware of the negative consequences of distracting employees from the task at hand. Of course, there are some steps employees can take to minimize these consequences.

Four Tips and Tricks to Avoid the Negative Effects of Contextual Change.

In general, it’s about managing your time well and avoiding as many distractions as possible. That way, your team can work better and achieve better results. Here are four practical ideas that can help you do this.

1. Talk Openly About the Changing Environment

The biggest problem with task shifting is that it’s rarely discussed openly, even though about half of people say it’s an undesirable part of their job. Surprisingly, the other half don’t think so. This means they may object to some attempts to limit multitasking, as it could affect their preferred work style and productivity.

Others may not realize the costs associated with context switching. Therefore, before moving on to the practical tips below, discuss with the team the value of reviewing work practices and finding a common language that works for everyone.

2. Review Productivity Patterns

Eliminating distractions alone will not magically increase productivity. The reality is that everyone has their own periods of activity, and the smartest way to minimize the negative impact of context switching on productivity is to stick to the times of day when you work best.

For example, if you’re very productive in the morning but still have a slump in the afternoon, it’s smart to avoid morning distractions like meetings and checking email and put them off until later.

Time tracking tools like EMS software monitoring tool can provide valuable information about your productivity by recording where and how you spend your time throughout the day. This makes it easier to identify peaks and valleys in your productivity, allowing you to make better decisions to minimize the impact of changing circumstances.

3. Use Techniques to Increase Productivity

Once you’ve identified the time frame you need to meet, it’s up to you to make the most of it. To that end, there are a number of productivity techniques that can help. These can range from simple methods, such as a to-do list to ensure that important tasks are completed, to more complex techniques, such as time blocking.

Time blocking is particularly useful for minimizing task switching: It is a time management technique that increases productivity and gets tasks done faster by dividing your day into designated sections and focusing on specific tasks. By dividing your schedule into thematic sections, you can allocate enough time to essential tasks and neglect other non-urgent tasks.

4. Promote A Healthy Meeting Culture

Meetings are one of the biggest productivity killers. Especially those that are unstructured and unnecessary. Studies have shown that nearly 70% of meetings distract employees from productive work, and unfortunately, the frequency of meetings has increased due to remote work.

All the time blocks and productivity programs in the world won’t work if your boss schedules meetings during your most productive hours. This is definitely one of the issues you should discuss with your team regarding the change in the environment.

In short, the fewer meetings the better. But these should be structured and focused. Each session should have an agenda, a time limit and a summary with a clear action plan. It is also useful to allow participants to leave the session if they feel they have little to contribute and to promote this practice at all levels of the organization.

Best Advice: A good way to reduce the number of meetings and their impact on productivity is to cancel all but the most urgent meetings one or two days a week and designate meeting-free days when employees have the opportunity to work without interruption.

Conclusion

While it takes considerable effort and consistency within the team to enable context switching, the result can be increased productivity and a better work environment. This can lead to a number of side effects, such as increased productivity and happier employees.

However, it can take time to break these bad habits, as we are used to responding to Slack messages and emails immediately. And it’s a good thing when the whole team works together.

In short, it’s about addressing contextual change, identifying the damage it can cause, using techniques to dig deeper into the work, and minimizing distractions as much as possible.