“Context switching” is something you might not have heard of, but you’ve almost certainly done. In its simplest form, it basically means flitting in and out between several different tasks. Many of us juggle a lot of different responsibilities at work, managing emails and client relationships, reporting and presenting, and planning simultaneously. But having many different hats at work isn’t the real problem here – it’s that we’re trying to wear them all at the same time. If you’re going to try and rewire any of your unproductive habits this year, start with context switching.
What’s the problem with context switching?
Context switching is largely the unhappy result of having too much technology and information at our fingertips. We use multiple apps every day for several different purposes – with 68% of us switching apps 10 times an hour, according to a new survey by RingCentral.
But using several tools in and of itself isn’t the issue – it’s that we spend so little time concentrating on each task we switch to. One study reported that workers only spent three minutes on a task before abandoning it for another – and an average just two minutes on each digital tool.
While this multitasking may give an outward appearance of productivity, such extreme context switching has huge consequences for our productive potential. It’s actually impossible to perform two cognitively challenging tasks at the same time. Our focus becomes completely fragmented, creating an endless build-up of attention residue – where we continue thinking about a past task even once we’ve moved onto another.
This ultimately means no single task gets our full, undivided attention; we simply don’t have the mental space for deep thinking. We spend the limited capacity of our attention on a multitude of low-value “shallow tasks”, exhausting our brains with decision fatigue and low-reward work. The deep work required to solve complex, important problems becomes practically impossible. So how can we break out of the cycle?
How to stop context switching
1. Become aware of your digital behaviors.
The first step to take in curbing your context switching habit is to become aware of where and how you waste time and become distracted. The smart deep work assistant Dewo can actually quantify your total daily context switching for you. It automatically tracks everything you work on across web and desktop, and uses AI to analyze your productive patterns – actively showing you how to work smarter.
2. Block distractions.
We all have moments when our willpower wanes, and when your phone vibrates, a Slack notification pings, or an email professing to be “URGENT!” flashes up, it’s natural to want to check it out. Make it easier for yourself to resist temptation by blocking workplace distractions. Mute notifications, block unproductive websites, cancel out workspace noise. Clear your mind to focus on the task in hand.
3. Manage your availability.
In our hyper-connected digital world, disconnecting – even if only for half a day – isn’t always an option. If that’s the case for your work, set a specific time of day for managing Slack and email, and make sure people know when they can expect you to respond. This simple practice helps contain the shallow tasks that eat into your thinking space and actively stops you from being at everyone’s beck and call. It doesn’t mean communication isn’t important; it simply helps it become more productive and thoughtful.
4. Protect and prioritize space for deep work.
Setting aside periods of time for uninterrupted deep work should always be your priority. This is when you produce the work that’s most important to you – not just because tends to be of a higher standard, but because it involves the complex problem that moves your career forward. Schedule periods of deep work into each week, scaling the length of sessions over time to access your peak cognitive performance.
5. Check your priorities.
We all like to be helpful and lend a hand to a colleague when they need it – but remember what’s important, and what’s not. It’s not your job or your responsibility to prioritize other people’s work over your own – or get wrapped up in trivial tasks that might be urgent but actually have little inherent value. Time blocking your work is a great method for ensuring you give each different piece of work its due attention, so task value stays proportionate to effort.