Context switching - Context switching is becoming increasingly prominent in the digitized world, with an average professional using 6 workplace applications daily.
Origin of context switching - The word originates from computing to describe how CPUs switch between tasks due to planned or unplanned cues.
Context switching in the workplace - Context switching in the workplace refers to employees switching between different tasks and applications, resulting in reduced productivity.
What are the triggers of context switching - The three main triggers of context switching include multitasking, interruptions and fragmentation, each with a different cause and effect on employees.
Why is context switching bad? - Studied by various researchers, an increase in context switching was found to not only be correlated with an increase in burnouts, but also a decrease in cognitive performance, productivity and even IQ.
How to stop context switching - Use better time management, asynchronous communication, and create time slots for technology use.
Our take - We can use technology to our advantage by using centralized workplace applications that capture all the merits of workplace apps without the potential triggers of context switching.
According to results from our ongoing survey, on average, working professionals use at least 6 different workplace apps every day. With the growth of workplace applications, for many, workdays and information are becoming more fragmented between different applications and the resulting notifications.
Research has shown that it’s now rare to have more than 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus at work. When we jump between tasks, meetings, emails, we jump from app to app to work on different tasks. This is called context switching. All this context switching leads to our attention being scattered, and it comes at the cost of productivity and focus.
Although staying connected at work through context switching is inevitable, with each extra task added or “context” switched, according to computer scientist and psychologist Gerald Weinberg it lowers our overall productivity by a staggering “20-80%.”
Checking notifications across multiple apps and switching between is a habit many of us have, and these behaviours that kill our productivity often go unnoticed. In this article, learn and understand what context switching means for us, recognise the potential triggers, and discover how we can solve it in this digitised and increasingly fragmented workplace.
The term context switching was originally used in computing and describes the process of operating systems running multiple processes from the same CPU - central processing unit.
This is the act of transferring control from executing the existing process to another before returning to the saved original process. For example, we switch between using different applications on the computer. During this process, the computer shunts processing power from one request to the next.
Although the process of context switching is able to optimize capacities of the CPU, the operating system needs to carry out tasks to switch. This costs the system energy and reduces its efficiency.
Context switching in the workplace
With the shift companies have made in recent years to a best of breed vendor approach, employees can experience context switching from shifting attentions between multiple applications and projects.
Context switching is when workers move quickly from one task to the next. It's often at the cost of the worker’s attention, focus, and productivity.
In the workplace, naturally there are distractions, notifications and various tasks one needs to deal with. These can all be potential triggers for an employee to fall into the trap of context switching.
In general, context switching is triggered by three main causes: multitasking, interruptions, and fragmentation; each caused by respect reasoning.
Multitasking, in a human context, is the practice of doing multiple things simultaneously.
In the workplace, multitasking can occur when the schedule of an employee is too full.
With increased workload, employees tend to juggle and switch between multiple tasks. Although this may be effective in the short term to complete the most amount of tasks, it becomes unsustainable in the long term.
This is especially true for employees working at a managerial level with a large range of responsibilities and the constant need to switch contexts. Multitasking is necessary for them to manage their teams and performance, often making working on several projects more efficient.
Although the human brain is better wired for mono-tasking - focusing on one task at a time - on some level we are inherently addicted to multitasking.
This is partly as a result of the traditional workplace culture with the need to “look busy”, where multitasking will also make the employee look more successful and a better achiever at work.
In addition, the act of multitasking manages multiple priorities, and this tricks the brain triggering the release of dopamine, hence making us crave it more.
With employees having schedules that are too empty, this can result in a lack of structure and the reduced urgency to motivate employees to stay focused on one task. Therefore, it becomes easy to be interrupted and distracted.
One of the most common forms of interruption are notifications coming from applications. Regardless of how the notification takes form or if it’s work-related - work emails, text messages, Slack messages, news notifications - once received and gone noticed, the employee is interrupted.
Employees often tap or click on the notification to find out if it is urgent, and at this point the context has been switched from the previous task to the new task - the notification.
Although the employee may not act on the notification or just quickly reply to an urgent email, they still experience “attention residue after switching tasks”. This results in them being more likely to “demonstrate poor performance on the next task” according to a series of studies from the University of Minnesota.
Similar to the way dopamine drives multitasking, this is also true for interruptions.
Every notification is a possible interaction opportunity, so every time we cater to that a little we get a hit of dopamine, which recharges our "addictive compulsion" to social media. Humans are social animals, and notifications imply a social interaction, making us incredibly tempted to open the notification.
Data fragmentation is data that's stored across multiple locations and applications, creating huge caches of secondary data while making it harder for employees to find the most important and up-to-date information.
Fragmented systems lead to duplicate information and redundant entries as employees working with different data sets attempt to collaborate, causing errors and overlap to occur.
Ultimately, without information in the same place, attention becomes fragmented between all of our tasks, programs, and screens while attention is distracted by new tasks discovered in different applications before returning to the original task.
External triggers are signals we experience in our environment that can trigger certain human behaviour. In this case, signals in the office trigger context switching. According to research by CareerBuilder, the external distractions employees find disruptive in the office include messaging 55% and emails 26%.
For example, as an employee juggles looking for information on G Drive, responding to colleagues on Slack and writing an article on Notion, their focus is interrupted as they respond to notifications and jump from app to app. These notifications can have a big impact on productivity: great ideas can be lost, and focus reduced.
Internal triggers are the things that create the urge to switch from within. These triggers can take the form of habits, feelings or thoughts. For example, an employee may be working on a report after pulling an all-nighter, when working under fatigue, with negatively influenced performance and cognitive functioning, they might become easily distracted or lose focus on the report.
With these notifications as triggers, employees become interrupted from their current task - consciously or unconsciously - and this results in attention being shifted, or extra attention to focus on the current task. This, in turn, results in context switching to an extent with thoughts wandering off away from the original task, lowering employee productivity.
Similar to the time and energy a computer wastes during context switching, our brain also exerts power and spends time to adjust focus from one task to another. In addition to the energy, our brains also experience the lasting effect of the mind being unable to completely forget a previous train of thought in favour of a new one.
These lags in attention from moving from one task to another decrease cognitive performance long after switching tasks. When we experience context switching due to multitasking, stress levels increase while reducing achievement and productivity.
Other studies have also found a connection between the increase of context switching and the decline of IQ. The impact on IQ is equivalent to losing a night’s sleep or smoking marijuana.
As humans, we have a limited supply of attention each day. Interruptions across multiple applications use up this supply and prevent us from focussing on work that has a more substantial impact. For example, more time can often be spent in unnecessary, synchronous meetings, rather than focussing on a task that will have a more direct impact on business goals.
Every time we focus our attention, a significant amount of glucose and other metabolic resources are used. Over time, with the overuse of these metabolic resources, blood glucose levels drop and result in a drop in memory, attention and an increase in frustration. In addition, the quantity of work and productivity will also decrease from context switching, as it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain focus after distraction.
Studies have shown that the act of receiving a notification in itself is an interruption, even without having to open and result in “task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind-wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance”.
We can greatly reduce context switching by connecting our apps together within Omnifia, and using our platform as our central hub for workplace knowledge. Here are some productivity superpowers we will gain as a result:
Notifications are essential in alerting us of important updates. Yet, as previously discussed, they can dramatically reduce our productivity as we switch from app to app to get updated. Platforms over use them to get us back into their applications. to We’ve struggled with this ourselves at Omnifia, and it’s why we developed the Workplace Feed, one central place to see and act on our notifications.
Centralising notifications and muting all our apps can allow us to have longer, more structured deep work sessions. Once a task is completed, we can come to our Workplace Feed to quickly get updates and perform functions across our tools. Whether that’s sending Slacks, updating Trello cards, creating deals or Google Documents, we can do that all from Omnifia!
Much like when we switch from app to app find notifications, we go through the same process when we’re looking for information. With Omnifia, we can search all our files, emails, tasks, or any other type of information all from the search bar. This enables users to not only find information 3x faster, but allows us to reduce app switching in the process too.
Focus time and free time aren’t the same; one is structured, while the other isn’t. When we have an open hour or two in our calendar, bring some intentionality into how we use that time to make the most of it.
The Pomodoro Technique is a popular time management system that makes it easier to focus on a single task at a time and still knock out different tasks in succession. Here's how it works: we break up our tasks into 25 minute time slots, followed by five-minute breaks to recharge and prepare for the next round. We can customise these slots and breaks as we wish to work in a way that's best for us.
Asynchronous communication is a communication method that involves a time delay between when the sender delivers their message and when the recipient digests it. This method is optimal when we aretrying to respect our recipient’s time. Learn about the differences between synchronous vs asynchronous communication.
If we want to limit unnecessary context switching, we have to be intentional about managing email and instant messaging. Book limited times during our day to use technology — like checking our notifications using our Workplace Feed, or going through ours individually.
Mute our Slack notifications when we're in deep work mode. We also sync our calendars with our Slack status to give our colleagues context about what we’re working on, or whether we're in a Zoom meeting.
In today’s day and age, employees are often toggling between tabs, hopping in and out of meetings, and juggling multiple conversations at once. This is all accelerating as we continue the shift to best of breed.
Whilst the benefits of best of breed are many, we’ve seen a huge increase in applications and consequently the number of notifications and switching across applications. This cause a significant strain on productivity and is said to cost the workplace 510 million hours every day.
Knowing this problem affects us is key to reducing its impact. For us, centralisation and benefitting from the power of connectivity is absolutely essential to reduce the impact of context switching.
This is exactly why we created Omnifia. One place to find and act on updates, one place to search across our apps. Sign up today.
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