How to Limit the Effects of Context Switching on Productivity

Macgill Davis

In the early 1990s, psychologists studied expert violinists at the Universität der Künste, a historic arts academy in West Berlin. Their goal was to assess the role and impact of deliberate practice in acquiring expertise in a creative or professional field.

Their analysis provided valuable theories on the effect of practice, following a daily schedule, and adapting your environment to limit disruptions during working hours. It also highlighted the costs of context switching — mentally switching from one train of thought to another or switching between different tasks — which leads to less productive work performance. 

The study revealed that focusing on a single task during a dedicated time block increases productivity and work performance, whether you're a knowledge worker, hobbyist, or career violinist. 

This article examines the impact of context switching on workplace productivity. We'll explain what the term means and how it can quickly become an inefficient use of time. We'll also share tips to manage your productivity and output when you need to context switch to get your work done.

What Is Context Switching?

Context switching (or task switching) happens when you switch your thoughts or actions from one subject or activity to another and then back to the original thought or action. You may do this once in response to an interruption or distraction, or you may do it multiple times as you switch between thoughts and tasks throughout the day. 

The term context switching originated in software programming and computing to describe how a computer's central processing unit (CPU) manages multiple running apps and switches between open tabs and tasks without overloading, overheating, or crashing its operating system. 

When you have too many open tabs, tasks, and applications on a computer, it works fine until it slows down, begins to make loud humming sounds, or starts buffering until you shut down some apps running in the background or restart the computer.

Similarly, in humans, context switching requires pausing or stopping work on one task, tackling a different task, coming back to the first one, or toggling between both until you start to slow down. When done repeatedly throughout a workday, context switching takes a toll on the human brain, leading to exhaustion and mental fatigue.

Switching between similar tasks may reduce the effects of context switching. In contrast, switching between unrelated tasks causes your brain to spend more mental energy and work with fragmented attention residue on every new task, affecting your ability to do deep work.

Why Is Context Switching an Inefficient Use of Productive Time?

Context switching: A tired, stressed man rubs his eyes while sitting at a desk with his laptop late at night

Every time you move your attention from one task to the next task, you leave some attention residue behind. This means you leave a part of your attention with every task you tackle during a workday. These bits of residue add to your cognitive load and reduce available mental energy, making it harder to do focused work and achieve more in less time.

Context switching, like multitasking, gives the illusion of busyness and progress, but it actually drains productivity and leads to a decline in work quality over time. Even simple tasks and little distractions like checking social media while waiting for a page to load or responding to notifications during your focused work time significantly impacts overall productivity.

It's important to make an effort to limit disruptions when working to make real progress on your current work before moving to the next task. This helps you advance toward your big goals and complete the most important tasks you set out for yourself in the workweek.

3 Tips to Stay Focused When You Have to Context Switch at Work

It is challenging to avoid context switching entirely while at work. In some roles or assignments, quick thinking and decision-making are required. 

For example, a project manager in charge of executing marketing projects and leading a team of content contributors may be required to be on call throughout her workday. From tracking ongoing projects in real time to firefighting problems her contributors may be facing, she doesn't have the luxury of sticking to a fixed daily schedule and blocking out interruptions from her team completely.

However, depending on your role and responsibilities, you can find ways to optimize and work within your environment to stay focused, even when context switching. Below are our top three tips to help you get started.

1. Implement a Time Management Technique That Fits Your Work Demands 

Context switching: A woman sits at a desk with her laptop and writes on a printed chart

Not every time management technique works for every role, profession, or schedule. The marketing project manager introduced in the example above may benefit from a technique like time blocking to help structure her workweek and workdays into sizable chunks of time where she can tackle similar tasks before moving to the next task. 

In another case, a knowledge worker with limited managerial responsibilities, e.g., a software developer or content creator, may benefit more from the Pomodoro technique to stay focused on work and limit reactivity to new distractions and interruptions during working hours.

Determine what causes you to context switch the most during your workdays. Then, find and personalize the best-suited time management technique that helps you better organize your workdays to handle your responsibilities with focus and intention.

2. Batch and Work on Similar Tasks at the Same Time

Switching between similar tasks may reduce the effects of context switching. In contrast, switching between unrelated tasks causes your brain to spend more mental energy and work with fragmented attention residue on every new task, affecting your ability to do deep work.

Batch similar work to reduce the cognitive load on your brain. This helps you stay within a working mind-frame that enables you to achieve a flow state, move naturally between the related tasks, and make significant progress by the end of the day.

If you manage a team at work, you can let your team members know when best to contact you for work-related needs and support issues. Create guidelines defining what makes an urgent request — which they can call on you for at any time — versus other types of requests they can solve on their own or wait to tell you about during your open office hours.

3. Prioritize Your Daily Tasks

Create a weekly work plan before heading into each new workweek to clarify your biggest goals and metrics for success. 

Then, spend a few minutes each morning or evening prioritizing specific tasks for the next workday. This helps to declutter your mind, pinpoint what's most important for each day, and organize your workday schedule and workflows to minimize context switching.

You can use the Eisenhower matrix or a simple priority matrix to delineate urgent and important tasks, quick wins, and major projects. Work toward limiting your important tasks and major projects to one or two per day. This allows you to make significant progress on specific tasks and leave room for other unexpected responsibilities that may crop up during the day.

Use Rize to Control Context Switching Throughout Your Workday

Rize's time-tracking app helps track your work hours and productivity automatically, providing daily and weekly reports that show how you spend your workday, when you are productive, and when you are struggling with completing tasks.

These insights can help you recognize how often you switch between tasks and how long it takes you to recover. You can assess when your energy levels drop off or specific tasks that sap your productivity to help you gain control and create structures to overcome context switching throughout your workday.

Are you ready to become intentional about how you spend mental energy at work? Begin by tracking your working hours with Rize today. Get started with a two-week free trial.