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Help your employees avoid the pitfalls of context switching

Context switching

Most employees love that precious feeling of getting absorbed in work for hours on end. In a state of flow, they can achieve more and produce better quality work. But have you ever asked yourself how many of your employees can really focus on the work they do? With so many distractions and such frequent communication in offices today, professionals are often forced into context switching, which happens when they alternate frequently between tasks. 

Context switching can be especially detrimental to professionals who require a high level of focus in their work, like developers. A very focused developer keeps endless things in their head at once: the names of variables, data structures, important APIs, and more. With this much mental bandwidth involved in every project, going from one task to another can take a significant amount of time and energy.

A developer may be working on a mobile app, for example, and have a colleague come over to consult them on some code they are having problems with. They may get back to the app, only to realize they have a stand-up meeting scheduled. During the meeting their team lead might tell them their priorities have changed, and the mobile app is now secondary to another more urgent project. Many employees work in a constantly shifting environment which can be detrimental to productivity. 

The negative impact of context switching on your employees’ work is significant. Studies have shown that it takes up to 23 minutes to get back to a task after an interruption. Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitaskers are less productive than those who do one thing at a time. Not only that, but they found that high multitaskers had a lower brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. Finally, research done by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that multi-tasking causes a greater decrease in IQ than smoking marijuana.

So what happens to those of your employees stuck in distracting open office plans? And what happens when well-meaning colleagues keep interrupting? How can your employees learn to cope with a constant stream of distractions, whether email, phones or social media? To stop context switching is not as simple as just saying you’ll start focusing. Distraction is embedded in our very work culture. 

There are a few things you and your employees can do to help with the struggle of context switching.

    1. Try working from home. This solution is useful in moderation. When you have a particular project that requires a lot of focus and effort, try simply working from home. If you are set up properly with a good home office, the time alone will likely turn out to be very productive. 
    2. Schedule chunks of uninterrupted time into the day. For a couple of hours every morning or afternoon, prioritize your most difficult project. Tell yourself that you will only focus on this project, and don’t let yourself get sidetracked. Turn off notifications. Put up a Do Not Disturb sign at your desk. Watch your worklog entries in Tempo Timesheets get longer!
    3. If you can’t beat context switching, embrace it. Keep a journal for each project you’re working on. After you finish work on it, write down what you just did and what you have to do next. Also include one small step you can subsequently take towards completing that task. This way, when you come back to the project, you will not start work from a completely blank mind.
    4. Don’t schedule meetings throughout the day. Whenever possible schedule meetings back-to-back. Look into implementing a No-Meeting day once a week, in which company meetings are not allowed. 

With less context switching, your employees and yourself will have a much easier time logging hours and be significantly more productive.

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