Context switching can kill up to 80% of your productive time (here’s what to do about it)

Most people wear a lot of hats every day. Your title might be “senior developer” but you’re also “pseudo-project manager,” “part-time designer” and “chief of inbox relations.” In our own research, we found that software developers spend just 41% of their time each day doing… well, software development.

Yet, the problem isn’t just that we wear many hats, but that we try to wear them all at once.

Most of us spend our days jumping between tasks and tools. In fact, one study found most people average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching to something else (and only 2 minutes on a digital tool before moving on).

You can’t do your best work when your attention is scattered across 12 open apps, 34 ongoing conversations, and a to-do list a mile long. Here’s how (and why) you should design a working schedule that promotes sustained focus over constant context switching.

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The power of sustained attention: Context switching can eat up to 80% of your productive time

Focus is a muscle. And just like your quads or your biceps, it atrophies when you don’t use it.

Unfortunately, modern workspaces aren’t designed for long periods of sustained attention. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the constant notifications and interruptions, fragmentation, and unspoken expectations of the workplace actively break down our ability to focus.

And while the immediate cost of context switching might feel small, the compounding impact on your focus is staggering.

According to computer scientist and psychologist Gerald Weinberg, taking on additional tasks simultaneously can destroy up to 80% of your productive time.

Here’s how this looks in practice:

  • Focusing on one task at a time = 100% of your productive time available
  • Juggling two tasks at a time = 40% of your productive time for each and 20% lost to context switching
  • Juggling three tasks at a time = 20% of your productive time for each and 40% lost to context switching

Working time vs. multitasking

With most workers these days trying to juggle 5 tasks at the same time, we’re losing up to 80% of our productive time each day just to context switching.

The answer: Why you should work like you work out at the gym

Work like you're working out

With those stats, it’s easy to see the power of staying focused. As we’ve written before, when you single-task, you’re more productive, less stressed, and even more creative.

Unfortunately, few of us are able to shut out distractions and communication during the workday. Instead, we multitask, context switch, and train our brain to be more easily distracted.

As Catherine Price, author of How to break up with your phone told us:

“When you try to multitask or hold information in your working memory it’s extremely exhausting to our brains. That alone makes us less efficient. Let alone the fact that we’re making ourselves switch so often that it’s slowing us down in general.”

It seems that our working lives are no place for finding focus. So let’s head into a different environment: the gym.

Even if you haven’t been on a treadmill or done a pushup in years, you’re probably aware of some basic principles around exercise like:

  • Know your limits
  • Get enough rest
  • Consistency is more important than exertion
  • Give yourself a break in between workout

While all these principles are equally important in the workspace, the last one is most interesting.

Most exercise routines work on a weekly split. You work a muscle hard one day and then give it a rest for the next day (or more) before coming back to it. This isn’t just to break up the monotony, but also to give your body time to recuperate before straining it again.

Most people average only 3 minutes on any given task before switching to something else. Here's how to design a daily schedule for sustained focus. Click To Tweet

When it comes to your work schedule, that same split is equally important. You can’t expect to focus non-stop on a project for days on end. But at the same time, you won’t see any real progress if you mindlessly jump from one task to another.

Instead, you need a work schedule that pairs periods of sustained focus with rest in a way that’s purposeful and powerful.

Take back control of your time with RescueTime. Try it for free

The essential elements of a work schedule designed for sustained attention

So what does a schedule designed for sustained attention look like? At their core, each includes:

  • Large chunks of focused “flow” time for more demanding projects
  • “Themed” days to reduce the need to recalibrate between different tasks
  • Advanced planning so you can prioritize meaningful work
  • Realistic time set aside for admin, communication, and meetings
  • Clear expectations for your teammates so they know when not to interrupt you

That’s a high-level look. Now, let’s look at a few ways you can bring these ideas into your own work schedule.

Use an A/B Schedule to reduce FOMO and productivity guilt

Context switching A:B

One of the biggest issues you’ll face when fighting context switching is guilt. There’s always something else to do—some expectation or email to answer. But being able to focus means learning to shut out that FOMO.

One strategy that helps is using an A/B schedule. As business coach Andee Love writes in Fast Company, having two specific schedules for different tasks helps you stay in the same mental space each day without stressing out about what’s not being done.

Here’s how it works:

Start by going through your main tasks and divide them by either project, task, client, or topic (you can use RescueTime to see exactly what apps and sites you spend the majority of your time in). Now, divide those tasks into two categories based on their connection, an A and a B schedule.

For Andee, her two schedules looked like this:

  • The A schedule focused on work with new clients
  • The B schedule was time spent on VIP and ongoing clients

By breaking these schedules up, Andee was able to stay focused while also setting expectations around when she’s available.

“I no longer try to shoehorn backend tasks into the cracks in my day or think creatively late at night when I’m exhausted. Now, I manage to get all my client work done in just 12-15 hours a week and my administrative work in another 5-8 hours.”

Theme your days and use office hours to keep your focus throughout the week

Of course, not every role or working situation can be so cleanly split in two like that. In most cases, you need to find a balance between flexibility and focus.

For example, if you’re a manager or work across multiple teams you need to be able to react to things that are going on while also single-tasking through your most important tasks. As Buffer’s Harrison Harnish explains in a post on hacking his schedule for deep work:

“Especially when working on projects that span multiple teams, there is a huge amount of context that needs to be formed in your mind before you start solving the problem. Building context can take hours, only to be lost by a random interruption.

To solve the issue, Harrison split his weekly work schedule between days focused on pairing and syncs and those where he wanted to do Deep Focus Work.

Maker Schedule - Buffer

Another way to theme your days is around specific topics (like “Admin Tuesdays” or “Financial Fridays”) or to use the Free, Focus, Buffer system popularized by business coach Dan Sullivan:

  • Free days are completely separated from business activities
  • Focus days are spent on your most important work
  • Buffer days are for planning, admin, and busy work

Whichever you choose, the goal is to offload your decision-making so you can spend more time focused on your most important work.

As productivity consultant Mike Vardy writes:

“By doing this, I gave my mind clues as to what to place precedence on each day before I even have to look at my to-do list.

“So instead of my mind asking a loaded question (“What do I have to do today?”) it now asks a question that has fewer possibilities by default (“It’s Monday, so it’s Blogging Day. What tasks do I need/want to do that fall under that theme?”).”

Split your day between Maker and Manager time

Context switching maker

While weekly themes like this will help give you an overall idea of what are you’re focusing on, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll spend focused time on meaningful work.

The problem is that most of us are stuck in reactive mode during the workday. There’s always an email to answer or task to complete. And instead of spending long chunks of focused time, we end up working in spurts of 10-15 minutes. (In our own research, we found that most people can’t go more than 6 minutes without checking their inbox or chat!)

While it’s pretty much impossible to break out of this working mode right away, you can do it in small bursts. Here’s where the Maker and Manager schedules become so important.

As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham writes, there are two ways most people schedule their days.

  • Managers cut up their day into one-hour intervals (or less) and bounce between tasks
  • Makers need long stretches of uninterrupted time (usually at least half a day at a time)

To protect your focus, try to schedule at least a bit of Maker time into each day. This could mean grouping a bunch of similar tasks (like writing or small design work) or blocking off a few hours to really dig into a project.

Again, the key here is to set expectations. Tell your coworkers that you’re going to be unavailable or change your Work Hours in Google Calendar so people can’t book your time.

How to switch your work schedule without losing your mind (or upsetting your coworkers)

Any change to your workday takes effort. And it’s always more difficult when other people depend on you (or at least having access to you!)

As you go about trying to remove context switching from your workday, be conscious of the other people you’re going to impact.

  1. Examine your current schedule (if you have one). Get real with where your time goes each day. RescueTime is a powerful tool here that can tell you the apps and sites you use, how your productivity shifts throughout the day, and where you’re being distracted.
  2. Communicate with everyone. Unless you work entirely alone, you need to be clear with everyone else about how your schedule is going to change and why it’s important.
  3. Experiment to find what works for you. There’s no one perfect scheduling or time management strategy. Try some of the ones above and see what works best for you or check out our in-depth guide here.
  4. Focus on your health (and use metrics to help). Again, RescueTime is a great tool to track your progress and monitor your productivity.

Make focus your competitive advantage

The modern workplace is only getting busier. But the more you let yourself fall into context switching, the harder it is to hit your goals and feel good about the work you do. Multitasking is a myth. And the only way to do more in less time is to focus on one at a time.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.