How to Stop Context Switching from Wrecking Your Productivity


Have you ever experienced brain whiplash? Maybe you were deep in some data analysis and then had to write a social media post. Or you wrapped up a meeting and were then supposed to dive into project work. You can almost feel your brain crunching through the gears as you pivot from the old task to the new one.

The new task takes you twice as long to complete, and afterwards you feel exhausted and foggy.

Sound familiar?

This is one of the costs of context switching.

No matter what your job is, it most likely requires you to toggle between different types of tasks at varying levels of complexity. This is what can make work engaging, but also tiring if you don't know how to minimize the cost of switching between all the different things on your plate.

So, what exactly is context switching and why do we do it?

Originally a concept attached to computing systems – it applies to humans too.

In the book Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking, the author Gerald Weinberg defines context switching as “the process of stopping work in one project and picking it back up after performing a different task on a different project.” Just like computing systems, “human team members often incur overhead when context switching between multiple projects.”

To put this into perspective, Gerald breaks it down this way:

  • If you focus on one task at a time = 100% of your productive time is available
  • If you task switch between two tasks at a time = 40% of your productive time is available for each and 20% is lost to context switching
  • If you switch between three tasks at a time = 20% of your productive time is available for each and 40% is lost to context switching.

Essentially, if you’re simultaneously working on 3+ tasks, you’re slashing your productivity by 80% (!).

When we context switch

Sometimes context switching is unavoidable as our work requires us to wear many hats and put them on throughout our work day. 

Other times, the context switching is self-perpetuated. Like when we multitask during a meeting, or give in to the urge to do something else while working on a particularly challenging task.

The trick is to structure our work in a way that allows us to single-task, deep dive appropriately, and move more fluidly from one project to another.

Strategies to minimize context switching

If it feels like a part-time job just to manage your brain, you’re not alone. But there are some strategies and tools you can utilize to make that job a lot easier.

Single tasking > multitasking

You might already know that multitasking is like taking the fast lane to brain burnout. But did you know that our brains straight up lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously? In a research paper on the Multicosts of Multitasking, one critical finding to emerge is that we “inflate our perceived ability to multitask [as] there is little correlation with our actual ability.” Oof.

So what’s a multitasker to do? Focus on just one thing at a time. 

While it might be easier said than done, you can give yourself a leg up by turning off notifications, working in just one tab at a time, or joining a virtual coworking session on a platform like Flow Club – a novel concept that uses social accountability to keep you on task. 

The faces of focus in a Flow Club session 

The sessions are available round the clock, limited to 8 people, and led by volunteer hosts. When you join a session, the host will spend the first 5 minutes asking each attendee what they’ll be working on before putting on one of their favorite focus music playlists and letting everyone get to work. At the end, the host will prompt everyone to share what they accomplished and you’ll collectively celebrate each other's progress. If standard focus techniques haven't worked for you in the past, it might be time to try something a little weird

Plan your day by depth and energy required

We often hear about batching similar tasks together, but you can change gears faster by batching work of similar depths that align with the energy needed to complete them. One example is to save the deep work for when you’re fresh and batching the shallow admin tasks for when the brainpower reserves are low. 

You can use a tool like Sunsama to plan your day effectively and stack tasks of similar depth to match your forecasted energy. It also makes it easy to move things around since you can’t always predict exactly how your day is going to go!

Sunsama — your daily planning assistant

Take a break

Especially helpful after meetings, taking a break gives your mind some room to transition between tasks. But instead of entering the phone zone, get outside and go for a walk. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development found that “time spent outdoors is associated with more gray matter in parts of the prefrontal cortex that oversee cognitive control, regulation, and planning.” And gray matter = a healthy brain.

Try adding a buffer after meetings or designing breaks in your day to create intentional space to shift from one thing to the next. Your brain will thank you later.

Find more illustrations on our Twitter @flowdotclub

Change your location

When it’s time to change tasks, it can help to physically change your location in order to get in a different mindset for the new task. Head to your local coffee shop, pull up a chair to your dining room table, or find a spot on the floor (dropping into a Flow Club session can also help you change up your surroundings while staying put!).

Wrapping Up

Context switching is inescapable, especially for all you multi-hyphenates out there. But it is possible to minimize the impacts of toggling between tasks with a little planning and intention. 

In the end, the best thing you can do is develop an understanding of the unique architecture of your own brain. From there, you can figure out what kind of scaffolding you need to create for yourself to move through your days with ease. 

The right combination of strategies and tools (like Sunsama or Flow Club) will help you increase your productive time, minimize time spent transitioning, and protect your brainpower so you can save it for what’s most important.

If you need a case study for how a real person manages context switching, here’s some inspiration:

Read more: How Gather founder Alex Hilleary uses Flow Club to overcome burnout and master context switching

Your brain is your friend. Learning how it functions best will be the key to unlocking the workflow that works best for you.

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