Let your brain settle down

Where were you the first time you learned that hard work didn’t directly correlate to results?

That bombshell revelation that feeling busy, or even being busy, wasn’t the only prerequisite to getting your work done and done well? It can be hard for some to take. Some in your office or in your coffee shop haven’t even learned it yet.

Because at its core, it makes no sense. Your hands are moving, right? You’re tired at the end of the day, right? Sometimes you try, like, really hard. But you know in your heart, you didn’t get as much done as you should have. Somehow, you’ve moved the ball only a few yards down the field.

So what gives? Is all work not the same? Well, no. Not in the slightest. Especially if you aren’t doing it right.

This is the evil of context switching. Of piling all of your tasks on top of each other and trying to attack them all at once. Of trying to finish your spreadsheet at the office while also writing your Great American Novel on a second screen.

Under the guise, of, who knows, “multi-tasking”? Being a “multi-hyphenate”?

Of having all those applications open because it feels cool to flip between them like your precious attention keeps getting nabbed by matters of utmost importance. Spoiler: you yourself are important, of course, but your tasks? A lot of them aren’t. In fact, their worth to your life actively degrades when you needlessly stack them like that.

If you’ve ever caught yourself thinking, “I need a third monitor,” the odds are that you don’t. You just like the feeling of context-switching. It’s not your fault. Great souls before you have fallen to its allure. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwoIJxDRu8M]

It can make you feel jittery. Like your brain is on fire. Sometimes it feels good—for a second. Most of the time, you just feel out of sorts. And worst of all, it makes your work suffer in a measurable way (as in, they’ve measured it in labs, to depressingly statistical results).

But it’s important to remember: you’re capable, endlessly capable in fact, of doing the work. That’s not the problem. The switching is what’s killing you. And that’s what can be snuffed out. You’ll be surprised at how simple the fixes are. Admitting you have a problem might be the hardest part.

It’s not just you

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Switching between tasks can silently chip away at your productivity. Unlike browsing social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram, the tasks you juggle often feel crucial.

Picture this: You’re in a Zoom meeting with your team. When the discussion veers away from your area of responsibility, you find yourself checking your inbox or diving back into the document you were working on—all while trying to stay tuned in to the conversation. Sound familiar?

Or maybe this rings a bell: You’re tackling a complex coding problem. Yet you’re aware that your manager typically requests updates around this time. So, you intermittently check Slack, anxious not to miss the message.

Whether you label it context switching, task switching, or multitasking, these behaviors exert a heavy toll on your already burdened brain. While the immediate impact might seem insignificant, the cumulative effect on your focus is profound.

Psychologist Gerald Weinberg highlights the cost: Each additional task or context switch consumes 20–80% of your overall productivity. Consider this:

  • Focusing solely on one task grants you 100% productivity.
  • Shifting between two tasks divides your productive time, with 40% allocated to each task and 20% lost to context switching.
  • Juggling three tasks slashes your productivity further, with only 20% available for each task and a significant 40% lost to context switching.

How often should you be switching? Research reveals that most individuals spend an average of only 3 minutes on any given task—and a mere 2 minutes on a digital tool—before moving on to the next item.

Find what works best for you

Minimizing the frequency of context switching throughout your day requires you to take on a new approach to how you manage your tasks. There’s no universal remedy for this; it’s about finding what works best for you. Think about:

  1. Your Schedule: Context switching often occurs when your schedule is either overloaded with tasks or lacks structure, leaving you unfocused.
  2. Your Habits: Many of us have developed habits of switching tasks, often driven by how we use communication tools like email or chat.
  3. Your Routines: Unconscious actions throughout the day can also trigger unnecessary context switches.

While this may seem like a daunting list, addressing these aspects can significantly enhance your focus, productivity, and time management. Making even small adjustments can yield substantial improvements in your workflow.

Timeblock to get a clearer view


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:

Structure your life with themed days

Time blocking is a methodical approach to scheduling where you divide your day into manageable ‘blocks’ of time, each designated for a specific task. Instead of scrambling to fit work into the small gaps between meetings and emails, time blocking allows you to clearly identify what needs to be accomplished and when.

Here’s a simple example of what a time-blocked schedule might entail:

Time blocking isn’t just about prioritizing your critical tasks or allocating an hour or two for deep focus. It encompasses scheduling everything—from handling emails to taking breaks—so you can concentrate on one task at a time without feeling overwhelmed or succumbing to the fear of missing out (FOMO).

Themed days offer a solution for those who juggle various responsibilities throughout the week, rather than having a singular focus each day. For instance, if you’re a manager overseeing multiple teams, you must remain responsive to ongoing matters while also dedicating time to focus on important tasks. As noted by Harrison Harnish from Buffer, when working on cross-team projects, establishing the necessary context can be time-consuming and easily disrupted by interruptions.

To address this challenge, Harrison structured his weekly work schedule around days dedicated to collaboration and synchronization, alongside days reserved for focused work. Another approach to themed days involves organizing them around specific topics, such as “Admin Tuesdays” or “Financial Fridays,” or adopting the Free, Focus, Buffer system advocated by business coach Dan Sullivan:

  • Free days are entirely devoted to non-business activities.
  • Focus days are dedicated to tackling critical tasks.
  • Buffer days are allocated for planning, administrative tasks, and other routine work.

Regardless of the method chosen, the objective remains consistent: streamline decision-making processes to maximize focus on essential tasks.

Single-tasking to make the day feel shorter and better


Your schedule serves as a guide for navigating a day without constant switching between tasks. However, it loses its effectiveness if you struggle to maintain focus during the designated times.

Embracing single-tasking—focusing solely on one activity at a time—yields higher productivity, reduces stress, and fosters creativity.

Despite the challenges imposed by the modern workplace, you can strengthen your ability to focus by adopting a few key habits:

  1. Minimize distractions: The work environment is rife with diversions that lead to context switching. Prioritize deep focus by eliminating distractions. This might involve relocating your phone, closing chat applications and email, or even employing website and app blockers.
  2. Start with small steps and set timers: After years of habitually switching tasks, your ability to focus may be weakened. Begin with short periods of deep focus, even just five minutes, and use a timer to hold yourself accountable. This gradual approach builds confidence and tracks progress effectively.
  3. Address ‘drains and incompletions’: As Dr. Gloria Mark suggests, self-interruptions are as disruptive as external ones. Often, unresolved emails and urgent matters can be the most distracting. Clearing these ‘drains and incompletions’ from your day lays the groundwork for improving focus.

Think of these focused sessions akin to gym training. Recognize your limitations, prioritize consistency, and incorporate breaks between sessions.

While sustained focus on a project for days is unrealistic, aimless task-switching impedes real progress. Strike a balance by committing to focused work while acknowledging the need for strategic breaks.

The phenomenon of “attention residue”

Even if you’ve structured your day with a time-blocked schedule to concentrate on specific tasks, transitioning between those tasks can prove challenging. According to University of Minnesota Professor Sophie Leroy, this challenge is what she terms “attention residue”.

Leroy explains that individuals often struggle to shift their focus away from an unfinished task, which subsequently impacts their performance on the next task. This phenomenon persists even after completing a task within a dedicated time block, as thoughts linger and interfere with subsequent tasks.

Fortunately, there are strategies to mitigate or minimize attention residue and the need for frequent context switching.

One effective approach is to group similar tasks together. By tackling tasks with a common theme or nature in one go—such as clearing out your inbox or drafting reports—you reduce the cognitive burden of switching between disparate activities. This not only minimizes attention residue but also helps your mind settle into the specific mode required for those tasks, enhancing focus and productivity.

Another helpful tactic is to establish routines and rituals to facilitate transitions between tasks. When shifting from one mode of work to another—say, from handling emails to engaging in development work—a ritual can serve as a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time to switch gears.

These rituals can take various forms, from brewing a cup of coffee to closing your laptop or even taking a brief stroll around your home office. The key is consistency and intentionality, as highlighted by behavioral scientists Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton from Harvard Business School. Despite the absence of a direct causal link between the ritual and the desired outcome, the act of performing rituals with the intent to achieve a specific result seems to be sufficient for that outcome to materialize.

Rest and recharge: it’s mandatory now


Maintaining deep focus is essential to combatting the constant distractions of task switching, but it’s crucial to avoid staying in this focused state for too long, as it can lead to diminishing returns.

Throughout the day, our energy levels fluctuate naturally, causing our minds to wander during moments of low energy. It’s unrealistic to expect to sustain high levels of energy and focus indefinitely. However, you can boost your energy levels by taking short breaks to recharge.

In addition to regular breaks like lunch and coffee, which should already be scheduled into your day, microbreaks offer quick opportunities to reenergize and refocus.

Micro-breaks are brief, voluntary pauses that allow your mind and body to recuperate during the day. Here are some ideas for incorporating micro-breaks into your routine:

  • Try the 20/20/20 exercise to alleviate eye strain from prolonged screen time. Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to focus on an object at least 20 feet away from you.
  • Use breathing exercises to alleviate stress and anxiety caused by overwhelming tasks. Take a few moments to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and practice deep breathing.
  • Incorporate stretches, a quick workout, or a brief walk into your day to boost focus and productivity. Taking breaks outside can further enhance your focus, thanks to the benefits of fresh air.
  • Take a moment to watch a funny video or engage in a relaxing activity that you enjoy. Breaks don’t always have to be “productive”; allowing yourself to unwind can recharge your focus more effectively.

By integrating these micro-breaks into your day, you can maintain productivity and combat fatigue without sacrificing focus.

When the work day stops and life begins again

“Wrapping up your workday isn’t just about closing your laptop; it’s about ensuring your mind gets the break it deserves for deep focus tomorrow. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, shares effective strategies to smoothly transition from work mode to personal time.

  1. Track Your Progress: Recognize what you’ve achieved—hours logged, tasks completed, and time dedicated to focused work. Tools like RescueTime provide detailed insights into your productivity.
  2. Organize Unfinished Tasks: Clear your mental clutter by putting incomplete tasks in a designated place, whether it’s updating your to-do list, calendar, or setting reminders.
  3. Glance at the Week Ahead: Quickly scan upcoming commitments to ease any lingering worries about forgotten tasks. This step helps reassure you that there’s no need for work-related check-ins during your downtime.
  4. Signal the End of the Day: Establish a ritual to signify the end of work, such as closing your laptop or saying ‘shutdown complete.’ This simple act helps mentally transition into relaxation mode.

By adhering to this post-work routine, Newport assures us that “not only will our work sessions become more productive, but our leisure time will also become more fulfilling and rejuvenating.”

Changing things up without disrupting others


Making adjustments to your workday demands effort, particularly when it involves reducing your immediate availability upon which others rely.

As you streamline your schedule, habits, and routines to minimize context switching, it’s crucial to consider how these changes will affect your colleagues. Lack of clarity on your end can hinder their ability to support your decisions.

Here’s how you can effectively communicate your intentions while maintaining respect and ensuring compliance:

  1. Assess your current schedule to understand where your time is allocated each day. Utilize tools like RescueTime to gain insights into your productivity patterns, app usage, and distractions.
  2. Keep everyone informed. Unless you’re working in isolation, it’s essential to transparently communicate your schedule adjustments and the reasons behind them. For guidance on this, refer to our article on conducting data-driven conversations with your team or supervisor.
  3. Experiment with different scheduling and time management strategies to find what works best for you. Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. You can explore the options mentioned above or delve into our comprehensive guide for more ideas.
  4. Prioritize your well-being and track your progress using metrics. Tools like RescueTime can help establish productivity benchmarks and monitor improvements over time.

One thing at a time—always


In today’s fast-paced work environment, attempting to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously often leads to a significant loss of productivity due to context switching. As Catherine Price, author of “How to Break Up with Your Phone,” pointed out in a recent interview:

“Multitasking and holding information in our working memory exhaust our brains, making us less efficient. The frequent switching only slows us down further.”

With workloads becoming increasingly demanding, succumbing to context switching undermines your ability to achieve goals and derive satisfaction from your work. Remember, multitasking is a myth. To maximize efficiency and accomplish more in less time, focus on tackling one task at a time.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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