The Hidden Costs of Context Switching: 4 Strategies for an Optimized Workday

Many people wear several hats at their job and find themselves task hopping throughout the day. The problem with this is that humans are inherently bad at multitasking. Context switching is the act of quickly shifting between activities that require focus, like working on a spreadsheet and answering an email. For software developers, context switching means switching between several projects, meetings, and other tasks that may prevent them from working “in the zone.”

When people switch contexts, the brain reconstructs all the mental resources it expended on the first task. This slows down work processes and makes mistakes more likely. In other words, context switching is bad for productivity. That doesn’t just mean that it’s bad for a few individuals — it means that the whole company is less productive as a result. This blog post will discuss why avoiding context switching is so important and some ways that context switching can be avoided to ensure that employees can work optimally.

Why is Context Switching Bad For Productivity?

The effects of context switching come down to two components: interruptions and the time it takes to refocus. Interruptions can be caused by anything from an afternoon meeting to a slack message to simply changing gears to a new project. A 2020 survey of office workers in Canada showed that distractions cost the typical employee up to two hours every day.

Furthermore, communication tools such as Slack have been on the rise since the Covid-19 pandemic and ultimately cost companies an average of $28,209 per employee due to productivity loss. While these communication tools are necessary, they are distracting for employees, along with meetings. An afternoon meeting already takes up time in the day, and then there are often immediate tasks that need to be done after the meeting and the time it takes to focus again.

Todd Waits explored the mental cost of context switching on DevOps engineers and found that context switching reduces cognitive ability by 20% while working on numerous projects. He states that it takes time to figure out where the task was left off, what has to be done, and how that work fits into the project.

Here’s a simple way to think about Wait’s findings: if an employee spends 8 hours working on one task, no cognitive ability is lost due to context switching. However, if an employee divides their day to focus on two tasks, they spend about 20% of that time switching gears, meaning they only contribute about 40% of their time and mental effort to the tasks. At five projects per day, an employee’s capacity to contribute to one project reduces to 10%, with 80% of work spent moving between projects.

4 Ways to Optimize the Workday

Unfortunately, getting rid of every single distraction is an impossible task. Often, meetings are required to ensure employees are on the same page and projects are on track. Also, it’s not always possible to have an employee dedicated to one single project at a time. However, there are some ways to optimize the day to avoid the negative effects of context switching.

1. Time-blocked Schedules

Time blocking is a method of scheduling that divides a day into ‘blocks’ of time instead of cramming work into the gaps between meetings and emails. A time-blocked schedule indicates exactly what has to be done and when.

Time blocking isn’t simply about scheduling crucial tasks or dedicating a few hours to concentrate; it’s scheduling everything from time dedicated to working on specific tasks to lunch breaks to afternoon phone calls. Doing so creates a structured day without major surprises and helps reduce the mental load of switching between many different tasks.

2. Themed Workdays

Time blocking works nicely if employees have a single daily focus. It’s not always so easy when a team member has many roles. Because managers supervise and work closely with other teams, they must react promptly to situations while completing their jobs. Creating a schedule for themed days might help reduce context switching in these situations.

How to best split up a themed day schedule depends on specific roles, but one example of this is free days versus focus days. Focus days are dedicated to working on important tasks, while free days can be used for admin activities, meetings, or other work that distracts from focus work.

3. Time Batching

Time batching involves grouping similar tasks and tackling them altogether. For example, if an employee has 2 hours to concentrate on one activity, they can use it to do all social media-related tasks.

This minimizes distractions and enables the team member to concentrate on one job at a time. It also minimizes cognitive resources required to transition between activities since they are all similar. Time batching can reduce stress and ensure a smooth day.

4. Build a Routine

While the three methods above are excellent time management tools, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid context switching. If an employee is required to work on several projects at once and attend several meetings throughout the day, context switching is unavoidable. However, a team member can build a daily routine with this type of schedule and get used to the ritual of switching tasks.

A ritual is any repeated action that tells the brain to change gears. For example, a software developer can make it a daily ritual to grab a cup of coffee after a morning of standup meetings and then change gears into their focus tasks. Over time, their brain will be signalled by the action of getting a cup of coffee that it’s time to switch gears.

Help Employees Stay in the Zone for Better Productivity

Employees can only be as productive as their work environment allows them to be. If an employee is bogged down with several projects and expected to attend daily meetings and check in several times a day on Slack or Teams, the team member will be heavily distracted and less productive. Many companies take part in company-wide practices like Deep Work Wednesdays or No Meet Mondays to reduce distractions on a larger scale. Companies can further increase productivity by encouraging employees to use time management strategies so that the workday can be more optimized.

At INGENO, we have adopted the Modern Software Culture to solve some of the context switchings.

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