You might think that context switching is the bane of all productivity, but maybe it’s not as awful as it seems. If you find yourself context switching and you feel like you just can’t shake the habit, Jamie Flinchbaugh, founder of JFlinch and author of People Solve Problems, has some tips on making it work for you.
What is context switching?
“It’s primarily a function of our brain’s focus moving from one point of focus to another,” Flinchbaugh says. “It is often framed as a task, but not all tasks require the focus of our brain. That’s why we can walk and breathe at the same time, along with talking and chewing gum.”
This means that context switching isn’t the same as multitasking – in a situation where you’re multitasking, you’re doing multiple things at once. But when you’re context switching, you’re going back and forth between two things. Compare it to a car shifting gears; you can’t drive in two gears simultaneously, and if you shift rapidly between gears, you could burn out the engine.
“Writing an email and having a conversation both involve your brain’s focus,” Flinchbaugh says. “Some people claim that this is multitasking, but that’s largely impossible. And what’s perceived as multitasking is really just lots and lots of rapid context switching.”
Why is context switching bad?
Many of the articles and posts you may read about context switching say that it’s one of the biggest productivity killers out there – and sometimes, that’s said for good reason. Flinchbaugh states that context switching can take away momentum from a task, like shifting a car into another gear before it gets up to speed.
“In most office settings, whether creative or transactional, our brains are required to provide attention, creativity, insight, or simply tracking of the work in front of us.,” Flinchbaugh says. “Our brains are often one step ahead, which, in part, allows us to keep up our momentum. Every interruption, start and stop, or switch costs us momentum.”
Without momentum, your working memory doesn’t have the opportunity to store important information that can aid in completing the task at hand.
“Start writing a long email and then answer the phone,” Flinchbaugh says. “You will have to go back to the email, reread what you wrote, remember what you wanted to write, and then rebuild your momentum. Now try getting interrupted three times. It gets very hard, very fast.”
Context switching the right way
While changing from one task to another too rapidly can cause issues with accomplishing projects, there are actually ways to implement context switching in a fashion that facilitates productivity rather than draining it.
1. Create your own work environment
Lastly, you’ve got to know your limits and manage your workflow in a way that best makes sense to you. If context switching is shifting into a new gear, then your brain is the car’s engine, and ultimately, you’re the driver.
“Take responsibility for your own little microsystem and its results,” Flinchbaugh says. “You are paid to deliver a result. If context switching is costing you your effectiveness and efficiency, then you must take steps to improve it.”
Next, Flinchbaugh says, if you feel like you’re not excelling at time management, start small if you want to cut down on context switching.
“Don’t try to eliminate interruptions, but perhaps just start with one type of interruption,” Flinchbaugh says. “Work the problem from both angles. Make your work more resilient to the context switching that you don’t control, while also trying to eliminate or reduce causes of context switching that you control or influence.”
2. Break down your tasks
First, in order to make context switching work for you, you need to break down larger tasks into smaller bits and tackle those one by one. If your tasks are too overwhelming, you might be more tempted to become distracted in the middle of them. But making tasks manageable allows you to complete them with greater ease.
“I wrote a book, but that wasn’t one task,” Flinchbaugh says. “Neither was writing a chapter. Writing a section of a chapter was a task and finishing that task before inserting even an interruption as small as looking at the text message received is critical to effectiveness and efficiency.”
Flinchbaugh likens accomplishing a task to set the table for Thanksgiving dinner. If your mission is to set the table, and you keep getting interrupted by conversations, chances are that you’ll forget something. But if you break down that task into more reasonable bits, like setting out the forks or folding napkins, you can have time to chat in between each action and still set the table without forgetting anything important.
“When we increase the granularity, we simultaneously have a better chance of pushing off the interruption however briefly, as well as achieving a successful endpoint before responding to the new task.”
3. Tackle it as a team
You won’t be able to engage in context switching in a productive way if your coworkers aren’t also helping facilitate your work by refraining from interruption. If you or a teammate is having trouble context switching, try communicating about the causes of interruptions.
“You can either look at the causes, such as schedule changes, phone calls, an open and active email system, to see if it’s going on,” Flinchbaugh says. “If incoming email notifications pop up and get opened, you have context switching.”
Another option is to work with teammates to craft milestones that can delineate the end of a task or a point to take a break.
“See if people can get to predefined endpoints in their work without interruption,” Flinchbaugh adds. “Since starting this task, did I stop working on it before I was done?’ If no, then you’ve avoided switching.”
Maybe context switching isn’t so bad!
While there isn’t a direct upside to context switching, Flinshbaugh says, you can always find ways to context switch effectively if you’re mindful of the process. The act of switching from one topic to another will cost you time and mental energy. The more you practice switching at the right times, the more you’ll be able to handle more action items at once.
“There is an upside to being able to context switch effectively,” Flinchbaugh concludes, “and that is being able to insert new and urgent priority tasks without hurting the effectiveness or efficiency of the initial tasks.”