Context switching: Why jumping between tasks is killing your productivity (and what you can do about it)

If you’re like most people, you probably wear more than a few hats at work. Your title might be ‘senior developer’, but you’re probably just as likely to be a ‘part-time project manager’, ‘junior UX designer’, and ‘chief of inbox relations’.

But all this context switching–when you jump between tasks, tools, or projects–impacts your productivity, focus, and happiness. 

Unfortunately, our workdays are becoming more and more fragmented. Between always-on tools like Slack and always-available distractions, it’s rare to get more than 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus.

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. So how do you design your workday in a way that allows for longer, more productive periods of focus?

In this guide: We’ll show you the true dangers of a fragmented workday. Then, we’ll teach you how to build habits, routines, and schedules that reduce the amount of context switching you do.

How context switching kills up to 80% of your productive time a day

Context switching is a silent killer. Unlike time spent on Twitter or Instagram, the ‘tasks’ you’re likely to switch between all seem important. 

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You’re on a Zoom call with your team. But as soon as the conversation shifts away from something you’re responsible for you check your inbox or jump back into the doc you were working on. (All while keeping one ear on what’s being said!)

Or what about this:

You’re working on a difficult coding problem. But you know your manager usually asks for an update at this time so you ‘check-in’ on Slack every few minutes to make sure you don’t miss it.

Context switching, task switching, multitasking… whatever you want to call these behaviors, they’re incredibly hard on your already-taxed brain. And while the immediate costs might feel small, the compounding impact on your focus is staggering.

According to psychologist Gerald Weinberg, each extra task or ‘context’ you switch between eats up 20–80% of your overall productivity:

  • Focusing on one task at a time = 100% of your productive time available
  • Task switching between two tasks at a time = 40% of your productive time for each and 20% lost to context switching
  • Task switching between three tasks at a time = 20% of your productive time for each and 40% lost to context switching
Working time vs. multitasking

And just how much are you switching? One study found most people average only 3 minutes on any given task (and only 2 minutes on a digital tool before moving on).

5 ways to build habits, routines, and schedules that will rebuild your focus

Reducing the amount of context switching in your day requires a holistic approach to the way you work. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, you’ll need to consider:

  1. Your schedule. Context switching happens when your schedule is either too full (too many things to work on) or too empty (not enough structure to stay focused).
  2. Habits. Most of us have built a habit of task switching through how we use work tools like email or chat.
  3. Routines and rituals. There are also unconscious actions you take throughout the day that cause you to switch.

This might sound like a lot to cover. But like most things that have an outsized impact on your focus, productivity, and time management, a few small changes can go a long way. 

1. Batch and timeblock your schedule to create clearer ‘focus boundaries’

Context switching doesn’t just kill your focus. It also eats into the overall time you have to do your most important work. This is what we like to call Focus Work. i.e. designing for designers, coding for developers, etc…

In our own research, we found that software developers spend just 41% of their day doing actual software development. The rest is spent on emails, meetings, calls, and other work. The same goes for designers, marketers, project managers, and even executives. 

While there are lots of ways you can increase your overall time for Focus Work, the easiest is to change your schedule

A schedule that’s designed for sustained attention rather than context switching follows a few simple rules:

  • Large chunks of focused “flow” time for more demanding projects
  • Realistic time set aside for emails, meetings, and admin 
  • Advanced planning so you can prioritize meaningful work
  • ‘Themed’ days to reduce the need to recalibrate between different tasks

In practice, there are plenty of practical scheduling strategies you can use to find more focus. Here are a couple of our favorites:

Timeblocking to give your days more structure

Timeblocking is a systematic scheduling approach where you break your day up into ‘blocks’ of time. Each block is assigned a specific task so that instead of trying to cram work into the slivers of time between meetings and emails, you know exactly what needs to be done and when

Here’s what a basic time blocked schedule might look like: 

Timeblocking isn’t just about scheduling your most important work or setting aside an hour or two to focus. It’s about scheduling everything–from emails to breaks–so you can focus on one thing at a time without stress or FOMO.  

2. ‘Themed’ days to split your week between focus and flexibility

Timeblocking is great if you have a singular focus most days. But what if you wear a lot of different hats? 

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 busywork

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

2. Build a habit of single-tasking throughout the day

Your schedule can act as a map for what a focused, non-switch-filled day looks like. But it’s pretty much useless if you can’t actually stay focused during the times you say you will. 

However, when you single-task (i.e. focus on just one thing at a time), you’re more productive, less stressed, and even more creative.

And while the modern workplace has made it harder and harder to actually focus on one thing at a time, you can rebuild your focus muscle with a few habits:

  1. Remove as many distractions as possible. Your work environment is full of distractions that can cause you to fall into context switching. When you hit a block of time that’s available for deep focus, take a few seconds to remove as many distractions as possible. This means putting your phone in another room, closing your chat client and email, and even blocking distracting websites and apps if you need to. 
Using FocusTime for a study session
RescueTime can block unwanted distractions like social media, news, and YouTube.
  1. Start small and set a timer. After years of task switching, your focus muscle is probably pretty weak. That’s why you need to start small. Set aside a short block of time to focus deeply–even just 5 minutes. And then set a timer. This will help you start accountable and also build your confidence as you track your progress
  1. Get rid of the ‘drains and incompletions’ that compete for your attention. As Dr. Gloria Mark explains, we’re just as likely to interrupt ourselves as get interrupted by others. Often the most distracting things can be unanswered emails or putting out fires. Before you can start building your focus muscle, you need to remove as many of these ‘drains and incompletions’ as possible from your day. 

If it helps, think of these focus sessions like you would training at the gym. You need to know your limits, focus on consistency over exertion, and take breaks in between sessions. 

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. 

3. Add in routines and rituals that remove ‘attention residue’

Even if you’re using a timeblocked schedule and trying to focus deeply on specific tasks, it can be nearly impossible to ‘switch’ between those tasks. What happens in between is what University of Minnesota Professor Sophie Leroy calls ‘Attention Residue’:

“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another. Yet, results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”

Even if you finish a task during a dedicated ‘chunk’ of time, you’ll still be thinking about it while trying to do your next task. Luckily, there are a few ways to get rid of or at least reduce the attention residue that causes you to context switch. 

First, batch similar tasks together. You’ll have less attention residue if you’re switching between similar tasks. So, if you have a full inbox to clear out or a stack of reports to write, batch those tasks together. This also helps your mind get into ‘email’ or ‘report’ mode, which will make it easier to stay focused and productive.  

Next, build routines and rituals for when you need to ‘hard’ switch tasks. When it comes time to jump from ‘email’ mode to development ‘mode’ you’ll need something more powerful.

A ritual is any repeated behavior that signals to your mind that it’s time to switch gears. This could mean grabbing a cup of coffee, closing your laptop, or walking around your home office. 

The action itself doesn’t matter as much as what it symbolizes. As Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, behavioral scientists at Harvard Business School, write:

“Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true.”

4. Use regular breaks and rests to recharge

While deep focus is an important tool in the fight against constant task switching, too long spent in a focused state can actually backfire. 

We all go through a cycle of energy highs and lows throughout the day and our mind naturally wanders when our energy levels dip. You can’t be in a state of high-energy, high-focus all day long. But you can help keep your energy higher throughout the day by taking short breaks to recharge. 

Circadian Rhythm

Along with the normal lunch and coffee breaks you should be taking (and should be on your timeblocked schedule), you can use microbreaks to get a quick hit of focus. 

Microbreaks are short, voluntary breaks that you use to give your mind and body a chance to recuperate during the day.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Do the 20/20/20 exercise to help reduce eye strain. Spending all day staring at a screen takes its toll. To reduce computer eye strain, try this simple exercise: Every 20 minutes stare at an object at least 20 feet away from you for at least 20 seconds. 
the 20-20-20 rule
  • Use breathing exercises to combat stress. The anxiety of too many tasks makes it easier to context switch. Instead, take a few minutes to try a simple breathing exercise that will calm you down:
    1. Sit somewhere comfortable with your back straight 
    2. Close your eyes and begin breathing through your nose 
    3. Inhale for a count of two
    4. Hold your breath for a count of one
    5. Exhale gently through your mouth for a count of four
    6. Finish by holding your breath for one second and then repeat
  • Stretch, workout, or do a quick walk. Even short bouts of exercise during the day can help you stay focused for longer. Try a quick walk, basic stretches, or even a few pushups. Even better is if you can take this break outside as fresh air has been found to increase focus and balance.
  • Watch a funny video or something else relaxing. Breaks don’t have to be ‘productive’. Doing something you enjoy is a great way to quickly break out of the cycle of work and recharge your focus. 

5. Master the end-of-day shift from work to non-work mode 

Finally, context and task switching doesn’t just happen during the workday. If you’re unable to disconnect at the end of the day, you won’t be able to give your mind the rest it needs to focus deeply tomorrow. 

Deep Work author Cal Newport has a few strategies for helping you master the shift from work to non-work mode.

  1. Record your progress. Start by acknowledging what you accomplished–hours worked, tasks completed, time spent on Focus Work. Your RescueTime dashboard will show you all of these stats down to the minute
  2. Organize any uncompleted tasks. Put everything in a place so it won’t pull at your attention. This could mean adding to your to-do list, updating your calendar, or setting reminders. 
  3. Glance at the week ahead. Take a second to make sure there’s nothing big on the horizon you’re forgetting. The goal is to convince yourself that you don’t need to ‘check in’ later when you’re trying to relax. 
  4. Acknowledge that the day is over. Do something to signal that you’re finished for the day. This could be closing your laptop and putting it away or even saying the words ‘shutdown complete’. Think of this as another ritual. 

As Newport explains:

“If you strictly follow this after-work routine, you’ll soon discover that not only are you working harder when you work, but your time after work is more meaningful and restorative than ever before.”

How to switch your work schedule, habits, and routines without losing your mind (or upsetting your coworkers)

Any change to your workday takes effort. Especially when it means not being as readily available when other people depend on you. 

As you remove the opportunities for context switching from your schedule, habits, and routines, you need to be aware of how those changes will impact the people you work with. If they don’t know what’s going on, they won’t be able to support your decisions.  

Here’s how you can communicate what you’re doing in a way that’s respectful and will actually be followed:

  • Examine your current schedule (if you have one). Get real with where your time goes each day. RescueTime is a powerful tool that can tell you the apps and sites you use, how your productivity shifts throughout the day, and where you’re being distracted.
RescueTime Weekly Report for College Students
  • 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 that you make these changes. For more help with this, check out our post on how to have a data-driven conversation with your boss or team.
  • 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.
  • Focus on your health (and use metrics to help). Again, RescueTime is a great tool to track your progress and monitor your productivity. Use it to set a productivity benchmark and track when you’re improving (or things are getting worse). 

Make focus your competitive advantage

With most workers these days trying to juggle 5 tasks at the same time, there’s a good chance that you’re losing up to 80% of our productive time each day just to context switching.  

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

“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.”

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.

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