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What is context switching? How to identify it and eliminate it
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What is context switching? Learn to identify and eliminate it

A headshot of Will Kelly
Will Kelly
13th November, 2023
A sheet of paper with a lightbulb on being shredded by a paper shredder
A headshot of Will Kelly
Will Kelly
13th November, 2023

Eliminating context switching is critical to preserving team productivity and maintaining delivery velocity. Here's how to do it.

Maintaining focus and productivity is paramount in the fast-paced world of modern work. One of the most insidious threats to Knowledge Worker productivity is context switching - the frequent shift between tasks or projects. This practice disrupts the rhythm of work, reduces efficiency, and increases errors and mental fatigue, ultimately stifling innovation and problem-solving. In fact, 45% of people say context switching makes them less productive, according to a joint report by Qatalog and Cornell University's Idea Lab, as featured in Atlassian Work Life.

Inside the modern workplace

Impromptu meetings that were so common pre-pandemic need a calendar invite in today's modern workplace. As your team embraces the hybrid and remote working model, you’ll find yourselves leaning more on digital platforms. This shift to digital-first communication, collaboration, and reporting has its perks, but beware—without careful management, these tools can lure your team away from their core responsibilities. Without “guard rails" to protect your team’s cognitive load, they'll lose valuable time in an infinite, tool-driven loop, sapping their productivity and distracting them from the deep work that benefits your projects and initiatives.

According to the Software Engineering Institute, workers lose 20% of their cognitive capacity when context switching. Managers and team leads must address this issue proactively, especially if employees' return to the office (RTO) is a hot topic in your organisation. Preserving the cognitive capacity of your remote and hybrid workers is vital if political games break out about your workers’ productivity.

Six solutions to prevent context switching

It's up to your project managers, team leads, and even your influential senior developers to guard against context switching by your team members.
Here are some popular solutions to prevent context switching:

1. Make your digital tools work for your team (not vice versa)

Digital tools, especially collaboration platforms, sometimes bring baggage for employees who have had negative experiences with tools at past employers. When users become trapped by a tool that introduces unneeded complexity, it's almost like they're working for that tool. It's up to your organisation to promote effective digital tool usage via onboarding training, job aids, and similar channels to ensure your employees use the tools as efficiently as possible. Any onboarding and training should also enable your team to eliminate notifications and distractions in your organisation's digital tools to prevent context switching further.

2. Shift team workflows to one digital platform at a time

Preventing context switching also means workflow shifts that your managers and team leads need to reinforce. It starts with encouraging task prioritisation, where your team focuses on one digital platform at a time to reduce tool switching. Some developers may do this naturally. Others may require some coaching to improve here.

3. Encourage task prioritisation and time management

Encouraging task prioritisation and advocating for dedicated time slots on specific digital platforms can significantly reduce the frequency of tool switching. You may need to provide guidance and coaching to ensure all team members adopt this approach effectively.

4. Leverage hybrid work to improve time allocation

Hybrid work models offer a unique opportunity for refined time management. Employee calendars assume a heightened importance, replacing impromptu in-person interactions. This shift empowers teams to allocate their time more strategically.

5. Master the art of short strategic breaks

Taking short, strategic breaks to help refresh the mind and reduce the urge to switch between tools is another key to preventing context switching. Managers and team leads must set an example and instil this practice into their team culture.

6. Rebalance team workloads

Another solution to explore, according to Harvard Business Review, is to rebalance your team's workloads because workers engaged in work where they're constantly switching between applications are more likely to be distracted or bored. Use your 1:1 meeting with team members to learn if you have anybody who could benefit from this simple act. Doing so can help your entire project.

Final thoughts

Mitigating context switching is a linchpin in preserving your team's productivity and ensuring the timely delivery of projects. By implementing targeted strategies, you can empower your teams to work more efficiently and effectively, driving individual and collective success.

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Written by
A headshot of Will Kelly
Will Kelly
Content Writer
Will Kelly is a freelance writer. After his earlier career as a technical writer, he’s passionate about easing collaboration pain points for teams, whether technology, process, or culture. He has written about collaboration for IT industry publications.

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