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What is context switching and how can you combat it?
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What is context switching and how can you combat it?

Learn how context switching negatively impacts your teams. Then, discover ways to reduce it and improve team productivity.

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The first TV advertisement aired on July 1, 1941, before a game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Phillies.* This started a new era in advertising and media consumption, with TV ads becoming a powerful platform for reaching audiences and promoting products and services. 

Nowadays, it all feels like it’s gone too far: you can't escape endless streams of ads on TV, social media, YouTube, or streaming services. Commercials interrupt the natural flow of content, taking your attention away from the main storyline. 

Similarly, at work, context switching–toggling between multiple apps, notifications, and messages–can also distract you from what's really important. 

We lose up to four hours per week to context switching.** That’s why leaders of highly collaborative teams need to be proactive about reducing it and improving productivity and employee wellbeing. 

In this article, you'll learn what context switching is, how it negatively impacts productivity, and how to stay on top of it. You'll also discover how async-first collaboration platforms like Switchboard stop context switching in its tracks by keeping everything in one place. 

Reduce distractions and get more time for focus work.
Switchboard lets you share apps and files in interactive rooms and make faster progress.
Learn more

What is context switching? 

Context switching involves shifting your attention between multiple unrelated tasks, notifications, or messages throughout the day. 

For example, while working on a product feature prototype on Figma, you check Slack for internal team messages. Then, you start going through design feedback on a separate product feature before interrupting that to join a synchronous meeting. Before you know it, two hours have passed and you've barely made a dent in the work you need to complete to keep projects moving forward: that's the cost of context switching. 

You can't do your best work when your attention's scattered across 10 different apps, 15 conversations, and too many notifications to count. Below, we'll explore why that is.  

How context switching affects productivity

People are spread too thin because they have too many meetings and waste time juggling work across fragmented apps and notifications. Numerous, abrupt distractions can negatively impact employee wellbeing and productivity. 

Here's how: 

Cognitive impact 

Switching between tasks can affect your brain's ability to focus and perform efficiently. Cognitive overhead relates to the number of logical connections or jumps your brain has to make to understand the thing you're looking at. Each task requires a cognitive context switch, which can be mentally exhausting. 

Moreover, refocusing after you get distracted can take up to 30 minutes, which can significantly slow down momentum and make it harder to enter a flow state. 

Time wasted switching between tools and tabs 

People are interrupted approximately 31.6 times per day—and lose up to four hours a week toggling between different tasks, tools, and notifications. This limits your ability to get into deep work and can mean a significant mismanagement of time and resources.

Emotional toll: stress and burnout

According to Asana's Anatomy of Work Index, 56% of people feel they have to respond to notifications immediately. This can create an "always on" workplace culture that contributes to employee stress, burnout, and disengagement. In part, because there's no time for meaningful and focused work. 

6 ways to reduce context switching

Wharton Psychologist and New York Times Bestselling author Adam Grant wrote a book entitled Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. In it, he says: "In performance cultures, people often become attached to best practices. The risk is that once we’ve declared a routine the best, it becomes frozen in time.” 

This means that to reduce constantly switching tasks, you should audit your existing process from time to time to see what’s no longer fit for purpose. You also need to understand that efficiency isn’t about having more tools, just the right ones. Let's get into it. 

1. Prioritize tasks

Knowing what you need to do and when can help you stay focused on the most important tasks. You can prioritize tasks automatically by using your project or task management tool. For example, ClickUp's AI-powered prioritization matrices help you spot and prioritize urgent tasks, fast. 

Or, you can manually organize tasks by: 

  • Compiling your tasks and to-do list. This helps you visualize and organize your workload. 
  • Assessing the importance and urgency of each task. Use a prioritization system such as the Eisenhower Box (urgent-important matrix) to categorize tasks into four quadrants: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important. This will help you avoid getting distracted by the latter. 
  • Silencing notifications. For example, doing this in instant messaging platforms like Slack when you’re doing focus work helps make sure you're not distracted by non-urgent tasks or notifications.
  • Delegating tasks. Identify tasks that can be delegated to others, especially if they aren't in line with your core responsibilities or expertise.
  • Adopting agile methods. For teams working on projects, Agile promotes incremental and iterative work, letting you focus on a limited set of tasks during short sprints.

2. Batch and group similar tasks

Part of prioritizing your tasks is grouping similar tasks and addressing them in batches. This reduces the need for frequent context switching since you can stay in a similar mindset for a set period, which can improve focus at work

Batching similar tasks can also lead to more efficient use of resources and mental capacity. For example, your product team could dedicate specific periods for bug fixing and testing rather than addressing bugs or conducting quality assurance (QA) testing sporadically. This way, team members are in a QA mindset during testing periods. Without context switching between coding and testing, testers can effectively identify and address issues without constantly shifting their focus. 

Following step one, you'll already have a task list that's broken into urgent or non-urgent tasks. From there, you can: 

  • Categorize tasks. Group tasks into categories based on their nature or purpose. For example, you might have categories like "Coding," "Meetings," "Emails," "Design," "Research," etc.
  • Prioritize tasks based on urgency and categories. Once tasks are categorized, prioritize them within each category based on urgency and importance. This step helps you identify which tasks should be tackled first within each group.
  • Batch similar activities. Within each category, batch similar activities together. For example, if you have a "Design" category, dedicate specific time to wireframing. Then, dedicate another time to graphic design, and so on.
  • Work from one place. If your tasks involve specific tools or resources, plan to use them consecutively. Or, you can unite all your favorite tools and apps in a Switchboard project room so you don't have to keep switching between them. 
Scheduling, contracts, Google Docs, and open now sidebar in Switchboard
Switchboard lets you drag, drop, and organize apps, docs, and notes in one place. Source: Switchboard

3. Block focus time

Set time aside for focus work by blocking it in your calendar. This helps reduce context switching and improve team productivity as people are less likely to send non-urgent distractions your way when they know you’re not available.  

To carve out more time for focus work, it's also important to know when to make the switch to asynchronous working. Right now, the default is for synchronous work like meetings, and the multitasking that often comes with it. But bad or unproductive meetings can be replaced with async-first collaboration that moves work forward even when people aren't online at the same time.

Image of a fully packed calendar without any time left for focus work
Look familiar? Having too many unproductive meetings can be a huge productivity suck—giving you zero time for focus work. Source: Switchboard
Pro tip: Switchboard, as an async-first platform, acts as a shared operating system that brings all your people, applications, and conversations together. All your work is saved, so you can cancel more meetings and improve productivity with teamwork, both asynchronously and in real time. 

4. Audit your tools

One way to reduce context switching is to streamline your tech stack. You see, context switching isn't just about the volume of notifications, but also the number of applications that generate them. This means you need a lean, integrated tech stack that avoids siloed information. 

Here's our shortlist of the best tools to reduce context switching: 

  • Asana for project management 
  • Notion for document collaboration
  • Google Workspace for knowledge sharing and storage
  • Mural for creative visual collaboration
  • Figma for design and prototyping
  • GitHub for collaborative software development
  • Slack for instant messaging 
  • Switchboard for async-first collaboration
Pro tip: Use async-first collaboration platforms like Switchboard as the basis for your tech stack and access all your favorite tools in multiplayer rooms—with no need for integrations.
Responding on Amplitude in Switchboard async
By keeping tools, docs, and conversations in one place, Switchboard lets you give feedback and make better decisions async. Source: Switchboard

5. Communicate effectively

Being overloaded with messages and notifications is often related to a lack of clear communication norms and processes within companies. In fact, 52% of knowledge workers say they're more productive when leaders prioritize effective communication. 

Here's how you can communicate more effectively and stay focused: 

  • Set clear communication channels. Establish clear channels for different types of communication. For example, use instant messaging for quick questions, emails for more detailed announcements, and scheduled meetings for in-depth brainstorming.
  • Batch communication. Instead of sending multiple emails or messages throughout the day, consolidate your messages or emails and send them during dedicated periods. Having an async-first work culture helps here by letting you focus on tasks and respond to messages at designated times.
  • Update your status or availability. This can be done through project management tools, messaging apps, or shared calendars. 
  • Establish "do not disturb" hours. Designate certain hours when team members are encouraged to minimize non-urgent communication. 
  • Use async-first collaboration methods. For example, Switchboard gives everyone on your team access to dedicated project rooms in and between meetings. With everything in one place, it reduces the need for back-and-forth communication on specific tasks and lets you work without constant interruptions.
Switchboard room populated with Figma designs, project briefs, and a video
Switchboard is your single source of truth for moving projects forward async and in real time. Source: Switchboard

When you take care of your mental and physical health, you’re better equipped to handle the challenges and pressures of work without feeling overwhelmed

Plus, adequate sleep, regular physical activity, and other self-care practices positively influence cognitive functions. Improved focus and concentration make it easier to stay on a single task and not succumb to as many disruptions. All of this lets you show up ready to do your best work and increase the amount of productive time in your day. 

To get everyone to take self-care seriously, it needs to be something the team leader demonstrates. You can do this by: 

  • Maintaining work-life balance. Encourage a healthy work-life balance by respecting personal time outside of work hours. Avoid sending non-urgent messages or emails during evenings and weekends, and communicate that it's acceptable for team members to not answer messages during personal time.
  • Addressing burnout. If team members are consistently overworked or stressed, provide support, reassess workloads, and encourage individuals to take the necessary time off to recharge.
  • Providing resources and information. This could include workshops, training sessions, or access to wellness programs. 
  • Living by example. Actively practice self-care in your daily routine and let your team see you doing it. Whether it's taking breaks, setting boundaries, or engaging in wellness activities, your behavior sets the tone for the organizational culture.

Tackle context switching and improve team productivity

Just like sitting through hours of commercials each day, the amount of time spent context switching isn’t high quality time. In fact, it can take a massive toll on your brain. Not to mention employee productivity and morale as well. 

Sometimes, less really is more. That’s why you need to take proactive measures to reduce context switching. For example, by prioritizing tasks, blocking focus time, and communicating effectively, to name a few. This creates more time for focus work, improving productivity and employee wellbeing. Be sure to measure team productivity before and after implementing these measures so you can see the impact. 

You should also audit your tech stack and use Switchboard as an async-first home base that brings all your people, tools, and projects together. With a single source of truth for project work, you can improve time management, prevent unnecessary context switching, and move work forward faster without constant meetings.  

Reduce distractions and get more time for focus work.
Switchboard lets you share apps and files in interactive rooms and make faster progress.
Learn more

Frequently asked questions about context switching

What is an example of context switching?

An example of context switching is starting a new task in your workflow before you finish your current one. Or, attending a last-minute meeting rather than going heads down in focus time.  

How much time do you lose context switching?

According to Harvard Business Review, knowledge workers can lose up to four hours per week due to context switching, which has a negative impact on employee productivity, focus, and morale.

Stop, collaborate, and listen

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Reduce distractions and get more time for focus work.

Switchboard lets you share apps and files in interactive rooms and make faster progress.