It's such an invisible problem that you might not even notice it, yet we are all guilty of it, giving in to distractions that disguise themselves as work. Context switching is a big culprit behind one of the worst productivity destroyers of the work day. Yet it may not seem like a problem at first.
Still, doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity. You might do this all the time, taking a break from writing reports to answer your emails, or to listen to your voicemail.
We're an easily distracted bunch with people only spending an average of just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted. The result is no joking matter: that seemingly innocuous activity might be distracting you from doing your best on your other work, and adding minutes (which can add up to hours and days) to each activity.
Context switching is jumping between various, unrelated tasks. Even if the two activities are tenuously connected, you're still sidetracking yourself, and limiting your productivity. There are types of multitasking that fall into this category.
While classic multitasking is trying to perform more than one task at a time, rapid task switching is going from one task to another in quick succession; and interrupted task switching is to switching from one task to another, before the first task is complete. Do any of these sound like you?
Of the three types, interrupted task switching is the most distracting, because people typically cannot switch mindsets so easily. It takes time to get immersed in what you are doing, and by changing tasks, you are interrupting train of thought and costing yourself time.
Here's the science behind why context switching is so bad: The American Psychological Association found that when people try to perform more than one task at a time, they do worse at both tasks, because the human brain was not designed for multitasking. The cost of mental juggling? Both jobs suffer, and because the person takes longer to switch back and forth from each activity, the work also takes longer to complete. Statistics show that it takes an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.
Now that you understand the problem with context switching, and perhaps have identified the behavior in yourself, you can go about fixing the problem.
Here are three ways to get yourself back on track:
1. Try to schedule similar meetings or meetings on the same subject closer together. That way, the information is still fresh in your mind.
2. Organize similar categories of tasks and projects together on your schedule. Again, that keeps in in the same mindset for a longer period of time.
3. Did you know that email is one of the biggest distractions in your day? Schedule email time, in which you tackle and answer your emails in one chunk of time.
While you are at it, shut off all unnecessary phone notifications and desktop notifications, so that you don't go running to your phone every time you hear a bing. Now, imagine a day where you accomplished all of your to do's in record time, what would you do with the rest of your day? Perhaps you'd start working on that pet project you can't stop thinking about.