Context Switching - Doubling Down on Multitasking Has a Productivity Cost


It can be difficult to stay on task in an increasingly digital workplace. Trying to stay on top of emails, calendars, messages, documents, spreadsheets, and slideshows, we often find ourselves endlessly flipping back and forth between apps.

Our attention is constantly being diverted - we check our emails, fill out a report, fire off a few messages to colleagues, check our emails again, call a client or two, and go back to filling out reports before once again checking our inbox. After all, most businesses use different apps for things like email, CRM, project management, collaboration, and communication.

This process of constantly multitasking and flipping between apps and tasks is called context switching, and most experts agree that it’s actually harming our collective productivity. While the wonders of workplace technology have allowed us to improve efficiency and escape from the traditional office space, it has also normalized this type of attention-diverting and, quite frankly, mentally exhausting multitasking. With all the downsides associated with context switching, why do we still do it, and are there any better alternatives? 

Why has context switching taken over the workplace?

With the majority of workplaces making use of so many different apps and tools, it’s become second nature for us to constantly switch between them rather than stay focused on one at a time. When we receive notifications about new emails, messages or calendar invites, we immediately divert our attention to those things, regardless of how important or pressing the task we’re working on is - but why does it happen?

It’s actually a combination of a few things, beginning with the fact that the apps we use everyday were literally designed to steal our attention. Without notification features, these apps wouldn’t be used nearly as much and their role in organizations would be greatly reduced. In order to ensure that apps are used frequently and widely, they’re purposely designed to compete for your attention. There’s a reason why employees seem to constantly check their inbox - seeing that little (1) in an email tab, hearing a notification sound, or noticing a new pop-up notification in the corner of your eye compels you to respond.

It doesn’t help that since we’ve been trained by workplaces to be constantly present, context switching comes naturally. Even if the expectation to respond to an email immediately isn’t necessarily there, the modern workplace’s “always on” culture means that we’re going to check it and likely respond to it anyway. Irrational as it may often be, many employees feel that they’ll be penalized for being unavailable, ensuring that they’re constantly ready to switch tasks. Employees feel that they need to be present and available at all times, meaning they’re always ready to be summoned, even if it’s detrimental to their productivity.

The drawbacks of constantly diverting your attention

Multitasking can be very useful in the workplace, but there’s such a thing as too much. Context switching might help keep us in the loop and make us feel secure, but everytime we switch between apps we pay a price - the more we do it, the worse things get. Context switching has a major effect on productivity, leading to employees becoming overstimulated and thus making it more difficult to return to task once a distraction has taken place. If you’re writing up a proposal document and get sidetracked by checking and responding to an email or two, the ability for your brain to switch back and return to the proposal will take some time.

On top of reducing productivity, context switching affects the way we think and act. By constantly taking in new information from various sources, we’re ultimately left with a lessened ability to process and retain information for important tasks which were being worked on before becoming distracted. Once you go back to the original task, the amount of new information you’ve taken in from your email inbox or social media feed can have a significant effect on the quality of your work.

Context switching also blurs the line between high and low priority items. By taking your attention away from your primary work (spreadsheets, sales, documents, etc.) and focusing on something minor in comparison (emails, social media messages, calendar invites), your priorities will become confused. Rather than ignoring these minor items until you’ve finished the more important and time consuming task you’re working on, you’ll continue to opt for the lesser tasks. This turns what could have been a productive and efficient day (finally finishing the project you’ve been meaning to work on) into a not so productive one (spending the last half of your day checking and responding to emails).

Last, but definitely not least, a workplace that requires context switching is automatically exclusionary to neurodivergent people. People who have ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions simply cannot be asked to context switch regularly - even if they only have mild presentation of those conditions. As of 2020, the CDC identified 4% of the adult American population as having ADHD, with a 42% increase in diagnoses in children over the past eight years. And this is only one neurodivergent condition - obviously there are many more. With accessibility being of paramount importance in any corporation’s hiring process, allowances for the neurodivergent should include not enforcing specific forms of work styles. 

How context switching can be prevented

Preventing context switching can go a long way in boosting productivity, minimizing distractions and allowing your employees to focus on the task at hand rather than compelling them to constantly check their inbox or work on low-hanging fruit that ultimately has little to no value to your company.

Perhaps the most significant way this can be addressed is by keeping business apps and data in one centralized location. Rather than asking employees to constantly switch between apps and tasks, they can complete everything from the comfort of one solution - collaborating on documents in real-time while chatting with colleagues, or launching calls from their email inbox. This is easier said than done, as many businesses make use of tools which aren’t integrated, with vital information about projects scattered throughout different apps. Ensuring a one-stop approach wherever possible can effectively reduce context switching by minimizing the need to switch between apps, but doesn’t address the need to prioritize and block time.

To put it into context (pun intended), if you have information floating around in Slack, email, a CRM, and other collaborative tools, it isn’t just your employees who will suffer from context switching; it is the projects your business is working on. Having bits and pieces in different solutions is not going to work out well for anyone. 

Instead, management should ensure that email and CRM tools are integrated so that everything can be handled from either email or the CRM without any extra info hiding somewhere else. Slack is a particularly troublesome villain in the context switching story arc; if it isn’t integrated with everything else, whole files can easily go missing in threads. Ideally, Slack should only be used as a tool for centralized chat around products and not for file storage - and if a conversation gets to a point where it turns into a long thread, it should be moved to email. To recap:

  1. Management should ensure apps are integrated 
  2. Staff should be given clear instructions on which tool to use for what 
  3. All important files related to a project should be centralized in one location and not scattered between solutions

All of the above will decrease the anxiety employees have about switching between applications, and the unease bosses feel knowing that their team is skating off in completely different directions to execute projects and campaigns. 

While getting solutions in order is extremely useful to prevent context switching, employees must also be able to prioritize their work in order to avoid context switching altogether. This can be done by establishing a process to help employees quickly decide what tasks are highest priority, and which ones can wait until the big ticket items have been completed. 

Some may find it useful to list out their work on a task management solution like Asana or monday.com, which can help to visualize the work that needs to be done and make it clear what should be tackled first. With a better understanding of priorities, employees will be less likely to constantly jump between apps and tasks, knowing that things like emails and social media messages can wait until the end of the day, or another specified time.

Blocking off time throughout the day

Establishing structure with time blocking can also be effective in helping employees stay on task and minimize context switching. Certain parts of the day can be blocked off for things like high priority work and client meetings, while other, shorter parts of an employee’s day can be dedicated to responding to emails and brainstorming with colleagues. Time blocking can help to ensure that employees know when to stay on task, and when they can focus on lower priority items, minimizing the amount of times they need to switch between apps or shift their attention away from high priority items.

Employers and managers who crave a better understanding of how their employees are affected by context switching can look to productivity intelligence solutions like Prodoscore for answers. With productivity scores and contextualized data generated by Prodoscore, management can gain visibility into how each of their employees is spending their time, allowing you to see whether people are being bogged down by things like responding to emails and messages or managing their calendar, and how much time they’re spending on higher priority tasks.

Prodoscore makes it easy to see what’s working and what isn’t within your organization, helping to identify where employees are getting tripped up, which software solutions just aren’t doing the trick, and pinpointing opportunities for increased productivity and more effective employee coaching.

Ultimately, there’s no surefire way to prevent context switching. The best ways to keep employees away from constant distractions and on-task are to offer a more integrated workplace technology stack, help them better understand priorities, encourage time blocking, work with team members to minimize the amount of distractions they encounter each day, and use contextualized productivity intelligence data to inform your decisions and help your team reach their full potential.