How bad is context-switching?

How bad is context-switching?

There is a good chance that I will lose you by the time you are done halfway reading this article. You would have switched your attention to respond to a Slack notification or have given in to the urge to check in your email or messenger updates.

What is context switching?

Context switching is when we move from one task to another. It’s very common and research shows that we do it over 20 times an hour.

Say you are preparing a presentation, and your phone buzzes about a Whatsapp notification. As a quick response, you take a look and dismiss it as an uninteresting forward. You just context switched from your presentation to your phone notification. You put the phone down and go back to your presentation. The entire interruption, context switch from presentation to phone lasted under a minute, but as a result of the context switch, your attention remains on the notification you received. This is called “Attention Residue” and the fragmentation of your attention makes it harder for you to finish your presentation. The greater the number of things your brain is focusing on and processing at any given moment, the harder it becomes to stay put on any one task. This can lead to mental exhaustion and a lack of focus that has a little pay-off.

context switching during work

Why do we context switch?

We live in a world of constant distractions that ruthlessly divide our attention. As a result, many of us are constantly switching between tasks even when we don’t realize it. Why is it a challenge to stay focused?

Our digital tools are attention seekers

Harvard Business Review reports that from 2015 to 2018, the average number of apps used per business increased by 43%. Most of the apps we use to benefit from the attention we give to them. Metrics such as eyeballs, time spent in a session, the time between sessions incentivizes the application makers to design them to grab as much user attention as possible. Check out Dropbox’s State of Work presentation that chronicles how work started to get complex with the advent of our new-age digital tools.

We are exposed to an information hose

Our brains are not designed to process a lot of information, but we live in an environment whereby default there is more information coming our way. We’re just incapable to process the information at the rate at which it comes at us. As a reactionary response, we try to attend to a few of them resulting in multi-tasking, context switching, and busyness.

We want to be interrupted

Directing one’s focus on the task at hand is not easy. We give in easily to Instant Gratification that results in the production of the pleasure chemical dopamine, craving us for more. It’s only natural to want instant gratification. We gravitate towards the thing that will make us feel good. It’s a basic human need and it’s something that makes life significantly more enjoyable. However, this urge can lead to distraction and ultimately hinder our goals.

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.”
— Nicholas Carr, Author of The Shallows

The effects of context switching

Productivity Drop

There is a cost for each context switch. Gloria Mark et al’s research puts a number to this cost – about 23 minutes 15 seconds. So if you think the productive time you’ve lost by checking messages on your phone is 30 seconds, you are way underestimating it. It takes about 23 minutes to come back up to the same level of intensity of focus once you are interrupted. As a result, the quality of our work suffers and at the same time, we don’t feel great about our output.

Psychologist Gerald Weinberg studied the dip in productivity (and therefore the quality) as a result of multitasking. Per him, every extra task ends up eating 20-80% of your productivity share. So, if you are just focussing on only one task, you are being 100% productive. But if you are juggling two tasks at a time, you are approximately spending 40% on each task and 20% is wasted in context switching. The time getting wasted as you add more tasks increase – so when you are juggling 3 tasks, you are in effect spending 20% of your productivity share on each of the tasks and 40% is lost to context switching.

In a nutshell, you are clearly losing time when you context switch. And on top of that, your quality suffers. A terrible price to pay for an instant release of dopamine.

Time lost to context switching
Ref: Carnegie Mellon University article
Overloading the brain

Humans have a limited “working memory storage capacity”. According to Miller’s law, at any point, we can only hold between 5 to 9 pieces of information. Every context switch exposes us to new information relevant to the new context and the brain suddenly has to use its limited working memory capacity to manage the new stimuli. This overload taxes the brain and results in relatively poor function.

Do more shallow work

There are many distractions in the workplace and the stress of switching between tasks can cause limited focus on higher priority tasks. This often leads to doing low-value work like resending an email that we could have taken care of yesterday.

How to prevent context switching?

Develop Deep Working Habits

At the core of frequent context switching is the person’s inability to do Deep Work. Deep Work skills help the individual to be focussed on the task at hand and over time make it a natural way of working on tasks resulting in high quality. Tools like deepwork.easy precisely do this.

Spend time prioritizing what’s important

Focusing on one thing at a time begins with a choice. However, if you’re confused about what should be your priority, deciding becomes its own distraction. Decide what’s important with a framework such as the Eisenhower decision matrix, Cal Newport 4DX, or OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). The more experience you get with any of these frameworks, the quicker you’ll pick up on what to focus on.

Time block and stick to the task at hand

Time blocking is a technique that can be applied to any task. It allows your brain to know what it needs to accomplish in a day and then sets up time slots for tasks divided by the amount of time you have available. As you can imagine, time blocking drastically reduces the need for context switching as you’ve completely eliminated the chances of context switching in that time block.

Take fully detached breaks

Breaks give our beleaguered brains a chance to refresh and recharge.

It’s no secret that people are working harder and longer these days. In fact, Americans are spending an average of 9 hours a day on the job according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But recent research is suggesting that what we need more than anything is a break – something that’ll help our brains recharge.

Fully detached break

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