In today’s fast-paced world, productivity is crucial to performance. We rely on high levels of productivity to be relevant in our communities and to achieve at top levels in our careers. But there’s one thing that’s ruining your productivity level: context switching.

Todd Herman, a peak performance coach, explains that context switching leads to a 15-20 percent time loss when you change tasks or contexts. Todd’s “context switching” is also known as task switching or multitasking.

Multitasking is actually a misnomer. You can’t do more than one task at a time. In reality, you’re switching between tasks at a perceived high-speed. In the process, you lose tenths of a second, which adds up to a 40 percent loss in productivity by the end of the day.

Beyond Productivity Losses

You may lose 40 percent of your productivity with frequent context switching, but what else happens? There are many downsides to context switching that aren’t immediately evident.

  • You make more errors. Depending on the complexity and familiarity of the task, you are prone to make more errors with context switching. Gloria Mark believes this is because you feel pressure to work faster to make up for lost time.
  • You’re more stressed out. As you can imagine, context switching constantly forces your brain to be in a start-stop rhythm. Add that to the pressure of deadlines and you’ll no doubt experience higher levels of stress when interrupted. You may even get frustrated.
  • You damage your brain. Brain damage is the last thing you want to hear. But it’s true. Research shows that multitasking damages your brain by lowering the density of the anterior cingulate cortex. In addition to monitoring errors, this region manages empathy, emotions and general cognition.
  • You reduce your memory. One study from UCLA showed that students who multitasked couldn’t remember information as well as those who didn’t. Switching contexts slowed their recall and left some students unable to remember at all.
  • You have a lower IQ. If you context switch or multitask, you can experience a 10-15 drop in your IQ, which is akin to staying up all night. That’s the last thing you want when you’re cranking out an important project for work or school.
  • You become a shallow thinker. Context switching harms everyone in our digital age. We’re creating a society of shallow thinkers. If you switch between tasks every 5, 10 or 15 minutes, then you’re not thinking deeply about any one topic. You’re unable to reach a state of flow, which is associated with peak performance. Cal Newport, the author of “Deep Work,” suggests that setting aside time for concentrated effort on a single project or task creates a meaningful life ripe with value and high levels of productivity. It’s the one skill that’s becoming more important in our increasingly shallow world.

How to Stop Context Switching

If simply stopping isn’t going to work for you, then here are few ideas to motivate you to reduce the amount of time spent context switching so you can increase your productivity.

  • Follow the famous 80/20 rule. The rule suggests that you do 20 percent of the work on your to-do list that gives you 80 percent of the results. Use this rule to prioritize tasks. Pick the most important task first and spend concentrated time and effort finishing it.
  • Use concentrated time. As just mentioned, concentrated time helps you get one task done in a block of time. It’s time you set aside that is distraction and interruption free.
  • Process in batches. Similar to how you’d spend blocks of time concentrating on one task, you can spend concentrated time on processing emails, phone calls, text messages or checking social media. Set time aside in the morning, afternoon or evening to do the tasks that are most likely to interrupt you during the time you’re single-tasking.
  • Take notes. Sometimes while you’re working on one task you may get an idea or inspiration for another task. Keep a notepad at your side so you can quickly jot down the idea. This keeps your mind clear and prevents you from interrupting your current work to pursue the idea.
  • Use technology. These days there are so many apps to help you stay distraction free. A simple google search will result in a list of tools to support a distraction free environment. These tools limit social media time and keep you on task. Use these tools to your advantage if you’re likely to absentmindedly wander off during work.
  • Prepare. If you absolutely have to switch contexts during the concentrated time, give yourself time to prepare. You can reduce your switch costs when you prepare in advance. It’s not ideal. But if you are in a work environment that requires frequent switching, then preparing your brain for the switch helps to reduce the time spent switching.

Recent research has paved a way to improve productivity. But even in the face of these advances, technology undermines our ability to remain focused. These tips can help reduce distractions and increase productivity despite these challenges.


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