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All About Context Switching and How It’s Sabotaging Your Work Day

All About Context Switching and How It's Sabotaging Your Work Day

Many knowledge workers, freelancers and small business owners can attest to this feeling: you’re sitting at your desk, trying to get things done, but you feel like you can’t focus. Various distractions and side tasks and interruptions keep popping up, keeping you from doing your most important work and sabotaging your productivity. Before long, you’re losing track of what you were thinking about a minute ago, forgetting to do basic tasks and otherwise feeling like your brain is full of molasses.

Does this sound familiar to you? If so, you might be experiencing a phenomenon called “context switching.” This feeling is frequently encountered by almost everyone in the modern technological workplace, but many of us didn’t have a word for it – until now. But the truth is, context switching, also known as task switching, is a serious threat to productivity. Most people don’t realize just how detrimental it is, but context switching is a crucial element to manage if you’re going to maximize your daily productivity.

What is Context Switching?

Context switching is the experience of “switching” your brain from one task to another – in other words, being interrupted and then continuing to work. According to stats cited by Fast Company, the average modern office worker gets interrupted (or “switches” activities) every three minutes and five seconds.

Every time workers switch from one task to another, there are certain subtle “mental switching costs” that go from shifting your brainpower and redirecting your attention from one topic or area of expertise to the next. Knowledge work and creative work require concentration, mental breathing space, and an unfettered feeling of “flow” – and it’s hard to get that when you’re constantly being interrupted or jumping between widely unrelated subject matter.

The Link Between Context Switching and Productivity

Context switching isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it can be helpful to take a break from thinking about a problem or trying to come up with creative ideas – sometimes people’s minds need to incubate or think about something else for a while, and then they can go back to focusing with renewed energy on the problem at hand. Sometimes getting interrupted about the same task that you were already working on can actually prompt you to be more productive about that task or topic. But if you are constantly being interrupted by and made to think about very different topics, this can be confusing and taxing to your brain – leading to lower productivity.

How to Minimize Context Switching

There are a few strategies to use during your workday to avoid losing productivity to context switching, such as:

  • Focus on one task at a time: Multitasking is a myth. Most people cannot be productive if they are asked to constantly avert their focus and jump between multiple tasks – especially if the tasks are unrelated and require different skills or thought processes. Try to organize your workday (and train your employees) to focus on just one thing at a time. (Check out this video from The Atlantic on why “Single-tasking is the New Multitasking.” Dr. James Hamblin recommends using only one internet browser tab at a time – “Tabless Thursday,” he calls it – and then closing that tab or “breaking up” with it when you’re done.)


  • Use asynchronous communication: Instead of interrupting your employees or colleagues with in-person or real-time interruptions (phone calls, knocks on the office door or the dreaded “barging into the cubicle uninvited”), use time-shifted or “asynchronous” modes of communication like email or messaging that allow people to respond to a question at the time that’s best for them. By giving people a chance to reply when they’re in the right frame of mind to think about the topic and respond to the question, you are helping them to avoid a context switching interruption – and helping improve productivity.


  • Block out chunks of time: Dedicate specific stretches of time for certain tasks or problem-solving sessions. If you have some intellectual heavy lifting to do – whether it’s a brainstorming session for the marketing of your new product launch, or planning for the next fiscal year’s key business objectives – give yourself some uninterrupted time where you can really focus.

Context switching is a common part of modern life in the internet era – but you don’t have to let it undermine your productivity and business profits. Look for ways to recognize the limitations of the human mind’s tendency to get distracted – and maximize productivity by managing your sense of focus and boosting productivity throughout the day.

What are your thoughts on this? What are some strategies that you use at your business to avoid counterproductive interruptions and distractions? Leave a comment and let us know.


Kabbage Team

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