Why Context Switching Is Killing Your Productivity

written by Dan Silvestre
Focus, Productivity

context switchingIt’s no secret that more projects mean lower focus. It’s not possible to have more than one task and concentrate 100% on each.

That’s why multitasking doesn’t work and has the contrary effect.

But there’s a hidden fact that makes focus even harder: context switching.

How much do you think you would focus if given two projects? 50% each?

Think again.

There have been studies that tested how people perform when working on many projects. Researchers found the following:

  • For two projects, the productivity fell to 40% (100% divided by 2 and reduced by 20%)
  • Having three, it’s 20% for each project and 40% lost
  • For five or more, it’s 4% each and 80% lost

Lost on context switching. In the attempt of remembering everything, your brain sacrifices performance. And it’s a lot compared to what people expect (40% VS 50% for 2, 20% VS 33% for 3, and 4% VS 20% for 5).

When you look at these numbers, it doesn’t matter if you work 12 hours a day. If you work on five projects, that’s about 30 minutes of productive work per project at most. You tell me what kind of results you get at that pace.

Now, most people know that 20% of your work causes 80% of your results. And if you want to reach the highest performance, you have to build momentum for 20 to 30 minutes.

Staying in the zone is harder than you think. There are so many distractions. All the time.

They say that all it takes to lose focus is to watch your phone for two seconds. I believe that just by hearing a notification sound, you’re already out.

If you’re always switching, you never reach the flow state. You may still get the job done, but you’ll have missed a lot of effortless productivity.

Even if you’re not a multitasker, you may still have this problem. Here’s an example of what it means:

If you focus on researching a paper and then move to write the essay, that counts as context switching. Within the same project.

There has to be a proper way to jump from one project to another without killing your productivity. That’s why I’ve come up with the six best strategies to avoid context switching.

How to Solve Context Switching

1. Themed Days For Better Focus

We like to believe that having more time would make our work easier. But as you spend more time in a project, you’ll stard to engage less.

The solution? Assign one context (theme) for every day of the week.

All you need to recover your brilliance is taking a day off where you work on something else. It will also add variety.

How to:

  1. Group the tasks/projects that fit with one theme/work mode
  2. Create a list from most to least important
  3. For the most important, start your week with that themed day. You can also assign more than one day
  4. For the least important, put them either at the beginning or at the end of the week
  5. For tasks, you need to complete every day no matter what, create a morning routine to knock them off first thing in the day

What works best for me is:

  • Admin activities (planning/teamwork/management) for Monday
  • Deep work for Tuesday to Thursday
  • Work reviews and meetings for Fridays
  • Work-unrelated tasks on Saturdays
  • No tasks on Sunday

From Tuesday to Thursday, each day will match with a different stage of my project (e.g., researching, writing, filming).

A fair question to ask: Should you keep your deep workdays together? Only if it works for you. If you prefer to have breaks in between, you can do deep work every other day.

But “work” is too broad. You’ll be much more intentional when you specify what to do. So here’s a structure that helped me a lot:

  • Finder mode: Research projects, find clients
  • Manager mode: Plan projects, talk to clients
  • Doer mode: Complete projects, review with clients

And it goes hand in hand with themed days.

It works best to keep Finder and Doer mode on separate days while keeping the Manager mode for the end of your day.

2. Time Blocking For Zero Distractions

The fact that you “don’t have time” might just mean that you don’t use it properly. Time-blocking makes you more intentional and focused, so you’ll need less time to achieve the same results.

How to:

  1. Make a list of all the recurrent tasks you need to do
  2. Group them in blocks (e.g., Project 1, Project 2, personal admin, social activities, health, relax/fun time)
  3. Arrange your blocks from most to least important

If you don’t like routines and want to keep it simple:

  • Reserve some buffer time for emergencies. Don’t assign a block for all your 24 hours
  • Don’t worry about the details. You don’t need to plan every minute of every block
  • Keep blocks flexible so they’re easy to move to another time in the day. I know the bigger blocks are less flexible, but it’s better not to split them to avoid context switching

3. Feedback Timing to Minimize Editing

Who wants to spend hours of deep work only to repeat/throw it away? When a revision takes longer than the actual project, what’s the point of working in the first place?

There’s nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which shouldn’t be done at all.- Peter Drucker

You can time your revisions to minimize edits without spending too long on planning.

How to:

  1. Get enough information to start the project. Mind that you don’t need to know all the steps now, because you might need to correct them later anyway
  2. Work until you get around 50% of the project done and ask for feedback
  3. Edit and finish the work based on that feedback

Feedback is productive because it points you in the right direction, but it can be tricky:

  • The more work you complete without revisions, the more you need to edit if you did something wrong
  • If you ask for feedback too often, you lose momentum due to context switching

And if you need more than two revision sessions, either it’s a really complex project or the feedback wasn’t effective.

4. Brain Dumping to Think Less and Do More

How many times have you been “at work” but your mind was elsewhere? If you have too much going on, a brain dump will help you get back to work with a clear mind fast.

How to:

  1. Write a list of every task you can think of
  2. Put in one group the ones that take two minutes or less
  3. Create another group for the most urgent and important
  4. Then another for important projects with far or no deadlines
  5. For urgent-but-not-important tasks, delegate or postpone them
  6. For distractions, make it your priority to delete them

Once you’ve categorized your tasks:

  1. Immediately do the <2min tasks
  2. Schedule your most important tasks
  3. Dedicate a time block for important activities with no deadline
  4. Batch urgent minor tasks at the end of the day, or whenever you have a time gap

Now you have no reason to think of other tasks at the wrong time.

5.Batching For Less Friction and Distractions

context switching batching

Isn’t it frustrating when a tiny task leads to a procrastination streak? To avoid time losses, learn to group similar tasks and manage them intentionally.

How to:

  1. Write down all the things you have to do (if you did the brain dump before, expand on the tiny tasks)
  2. Group the tasks that you do in the same place, platform, or pattern
  3. Schedule. What’s the longest you can wait to do it? The longer you wait, the more tasks you accumulate within the same theme
  4. You time-block them and get the job done in one sitting

Ten tasks of the same group are really just one. But if you do them at different times, you’ll face ten times the friction. With batching, you only have to do it once.

Plus, every bit is an opportunity to distract yourself. Email, games, social media.

It’s tempting to answer an email as soon as you get it. But that’s not intentional work, so you might get distracted with another email, then open social media, and get carried away.

If you time-block, it’s less likely to get distracted and you’ll finish your tasks sooner.

6. Create Detailed Checklists For a Faster Startup

Complex projects are the hardest:

  • You can plan meticulously and still forget something
  • If you make a mistake, it takes a while to backtrack, find it, and solve it. Sometimes, it even makes you redesign everything
  • It takes too much effort to consider all the factors

These are the projects you procrastinate on the most. Maybe you do a good session and stop for a fifteen-minute break.

But when you get back, there’s so much friction than you postpone it. Because you need to remember everything again, including what you have or haven’t done.

Checklists help us reduce that friction by simplifying decisions.

How to:

  1. Write what your checklist does. After you follow the steps, what results are you supposed to get?
  2. Create a sequence with the tasks you need to get those results
  3. Work on that goal using the checklist you created

At the end of the session, you may find that you overlooked or skipped some steps.

After the first session, go back and complete the checklist with what you learned. Be as detailed as possible. Then, repeat the process until you include every condition.

That’s how you create a system to get things done without thinking. And if you want to delegate, anyone who follows the checklist should get the same results.

If you can reduce it to a flow chart (Yes/No questions), it’s easier to follow.

What does this have to do with context switching?

It’s hard to switch to a context you don’t understand. When dealing with complex projects, you spend lots of energy figuring out what to do and building momentum. Whenever you want to do another session, your brain needs to load a lot of data. That creates friction.

A checklist allows you to save and load the context you want in less time, also while preventing procrastination.

Don’t Get Frustrated

Sometimes, there are urgent tasks that you didn’t consider in your list that interrupt your hours of deep work. Add them to your next block.

Maybe you’re really worried about an email and check your phone fifty times that day. Do a brain dump and prevent that from happening again.

Or you wanted to time-block three hours of work. But after the first hour, you encounter an obstacle that delays the project for one day. Instead of waiting, work on your second priority.

Expecting perfection eventually leads to frustration. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t aim for perfection though. But as long as you adapt, you’re doing things right.

Tags:: tasks

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