What is context switching
Definition: Context switching is the act of abruptly switching between unrelated tasks, projects, or apps.
The context switching was originally used in computing to describe the process of interrupting a running program and saving the execution state so it can be resumed. The term has since been appropriated by psychology and management to describe the process of switching between tasks.
Context switching occurs when a worker's brain changes gears to deal with a new task. The process is very disruptive as it takes time for the brain to get back into the groove of the previous task.
Example of context switching
A project manager is working on a product launch plan when a call comes in from the spouse. After a brief conversation, the project manager hangs up and resumes work on the product launch plan.
A few minutes later, the boss requests a minor revision on a previously completed report. The project manager makes the necessary changes and resumes work on the product launch plan.
When the project manager is interrupted, switching back to the original task takes time. This leads to lost productivity and decreased efficiency.
Why do we context switch
People's attention is constantly being pulled in different directions, causing them to shift between tasks constantly. Context switching is beneficial if used in moderation but leads to decreased productivity and decreased focus when done too frequently. There are many causes, but these are some of the most common.
Difficulty maintaining focus and attention on one task is one of the biggest reasons behind context switching. When people get bored or feel stuck, the mind begins to wander, making it easier to engage in another unrelated task.
Difference between good time management (left) and bad time management (right).
Trying to do too many things at once is a common time management mistake. When people try to take on more than they can handle, context switching is the result. This is particularly challenging when the tasks are unrelated or require different skills.
Context switching is also a favorable time management strategy. Working on multiple tasks simultaneously makes people get more done in less time. This is multitasking.
Interruptions from people, phone calls, and emails are common external factors that lead to context switching. While some interruptions are unavoidable, others are manageable with the help of technology or by setting boundaries.
Changes in the workplace, such as new projects, team dynamics, and policies, cause context switching. Workers need to adjust their focus and priorities regularly to keep up.
In a fast-paced workplace, employees struggle with knowing which task to focus on first. Switching occurs as they try to figure out what is the most important.
Cognitive or behavioral issues
ADHD, anxiety, and depression are mental health conditions that make it difficult to focus on one thing at a time. Context switching arises as people struggle to maintain their attention.
Problems with context switching
Context switching is beneficial if used in moderation but is highly disruptive when done too frequently.
When one has to make too many decisions in a short period, the ability to make quality decisions diminishes. This is because the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning (i.e., making decisions) is tired.
Reduced productivity and motivation
It's difficult for workers to get into a "flow state" where they are fully focused and productive while shifting between tasks frequently. This affects motivation and inspires a feeling of being bogged down.
Increased stress and anxiety
Juggling multiple tasks is stressful, especially if they are all high-pressure. Stress is a predisposing factor for anxiety and burnout.
Constantly jumping between projects makes it more likely to make errors. Workers are less likely to pay attention to detail when the focus shifts.
Inefficient use of resources
If a company has workers constantly switching tasks, it leads to inefficiencies as workers use resources for one job for the other. This wastes time, money, and materials.
How to avoid context switching with Mindmesh
Set clear priorities
Create an effective to-do list and stick with it.
Focus on one task at a time
If decision fatigue is becoming a problem, take breaks and give the brain a rest.
To avoid this, include break time in your time blocks.
In Mindmesh, you can drag and drop tasks into your calendar, or directly add tasks to it.
Set up focus time
Setting up focus time means changing your status to “busy” and turning off your notifications.
If you click on the blue + New resources button, you can write each task you will focus on during the Focus Time.
In Mindmesh, you can share with teammates that you are in a Focus time, and even assign Focus Time blocks to them: