Does it feel as if your day is spent struggling between many different tasks, devices, or screens throughout the day? If so, you’re experiencing the problem of context switching. This issue can make it challenging to get anything done throughout the day, and for good reason.

In this article, we’ll explain what context switching is and how it can lower your productivity. We’ll also provide strategies you can use to bring more calm and focus to your day.


What is Context Switching?

The term “context switching” was developed in computing to describe how an OS could run multiple processes from the same central processing unit. This happens when we switch between apps, our computers moving processing power from one request to another, putting the first on hold until we’re ready to get back to it.

Technology has no problem with context switches; however, the human brain was not meant to handle such tasks. During context switching in the brain, we become interrupted mid-task, and it disrupts the entire system.

Here’s an example. You may be writing an article and you receive a notification on your phone about a new SMS message. You simply stop typing on the computer keyboard, pick up the phone, and tap the message app. During this process, you’ve switched contexts from your report to the SMS message on  your phone.

Even if the disruption/interruption only lasts a few minutes, and you try to work on the article again, your brain is still caught up with the SMS message. This is called attention residue and makes it more challenging to finish writing the article. Overall, your performance and productivity go down. What’s more, the thicker the “residue,” the worse your performance becomes.

You might think of context switching as a tax. Each time your attention leaves one thing and moves to another, you pay that tax. Over time, the attention residue becomes thicker and slows you down even more. Not only that, but the problem also causes cognitive function—you’re thinking slows down. Context switching also uses up the energy your brain needs to stay on task.

No wonder we find it more challenging to get anything done! Think of all the screens, programs, tasks, and browser tabs that cause distractions. Each time you divert from one to another, you pay the context-switching tax.


Why Do We Context Switch?

Context switching, unfortunately, comes naturally to us. You may not even realise you’re doing this. But why is it so hard to keep our focus?


Digital Tools – Designed to Interrupt

We can put some blame on our digital tools. The technology we use today has caused major transformation in the way we live and work. Before 2015 or so, not many people dealt with the abundance of devices we use each day. There were no apps to distract. We had to deal with emails and phone calls, but things have ramped up since then.

Today’s devices feature notifications, icons, and more to let us know there’s something that needs our attention. Most people are unable to go even 6 minutes before checking their instant messages, social media, email, and more. What we don’t realise is that all of these icons and notifications zap our brain power, making it a challenge to stay focused on our tasks.


Drowning in Information

You may laugh, but back in 1255, a Dominican friar had already noticed context switching. He said with all the books available; it wasn’t possible to keep all their details in our memories. He was feeling a tad overwhelmed by all the information and tempted to read all those books, and who could blame him?

We feel the same urge to gain more information each day. This comes through our work, personal lives, and even downtime. Information is available everywhere through social media, news, and more. We’re drowning in information.


Work Culture Rewards Responsiveness

Being always “on” and available is also rewarded in today’s work culture. There’s an expectation that team members will respond immediately to emails and IMs. Context switching is rewarded in the workplace, ensuring that employees are always ready and responsive.


Human Brains Need New Information

Unfortunately, the interruptions we experience aren’t all from the external world. They also happen when we interrupt ourselves. Think of the many times you’ve been involved in a task, only to be wondering what’s going on with your friends on social media. You’re tempted to take a few seconds to catch up. But those few seconds can context switch, and you instantly become less productive.

The problem is that the human brain is wired to search for new information and novel things. But what can we do to stop context switching if it’s wired in the brain?


Strategies to Stop Context Switching

Thankfully, there are a few strategies you can put in place to stop context switching.


Capture Tasks

One way to stop context switching is to designate a place to add and organise your tasks. Don’t do this in your brain. You can use pen and paper to create a list, use a digital task manager, and more.

The idea is to capture all your tasks and keep them in one place. This way, your attention can stay on the task at hand, and refer back to the list when necessary. There’s no need to keep a running task list in your brain. Creating a list—somewhere outside of your brain–frees up some brain power for the work you need to get done.


Framework for Prioritising Tasks

Focusing on your immediate task starts by determining what task you’ll work on. In other words, what needs to be done next?

You can create a framework to help prioritise your tasks on what’s more important and what can wait. Do this by using the following tips:

  • Determine which tasks are more high-value, non-urgent, and low-value. The higher the value of the task, the higher it goes on your to-do list.
  • Be realistic about what you have time to get done
  • Set daily objectives and goals


Batch Tasks and Block Time

Once you learn how to prioritise tasks, you can batch them and block time out of your schedule to get tasks done.

Task batching: is the process of grouping and performing similar tasks together. For instance, you can answer all your emails at the same time to avoid bouncing between tasks throughout the day.

Time blocking: this method means dividing your day into blocks, such as “meetings,” “writing,” and more. Then block out time for these tasks on your calendar. That blocked time should only be used for the specific tasks it is devoted to.


Take Regular Screen Breaks

Finally, it’s essential to take regular screen breaks throughout the day. Breaks give your brain a chance to refresh and recharge in between tasks. Pushing to get things done when you’re too tired or hungry is a great way to zap productivity.


Summing It Up

Context switching is a problem that’s hitting most of us. It’s caused by all the technology we have in our lives. It can become a serious problem that affects your productivity and quality of work.

The key is to use strategies to stop or minimise context switching. That way, you free up brain power for more important tasks and get more done each day!

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