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The Challenge Of Context Switching – Mastering the Art of Focus

Context switching is a silent killer of focus, accuracy and productivity. What is context switching? Context switching is constantly moving from one task to another. It is rapidly changing the context of your focus. The term arose in computer science, but it is applicable to human behavior as well. In this article we’ll show you the true dangers of a fragmented workday caused by context switching. Then, we’ll suggest habits and schedules that reduce the amount of context switching you do.

Does This Sound Familiar?

When serving on church staff my experience with context switching occurred mainly in 6 ways:

1. Meetings: As an Executive Pastor it was not unusual for me to have 15-20 meetings a week. Often these were back-to-back to back and each was devoted to a different subject matter with a different audience. At times it felt like mental whiplash moving from context to context with hardly a break in between.

2. The Knock on the Door: Invariably, when I was deep into a project there would be a knock on the door breaking my concentration, making it difficult to be present to the person entering my office and a challenge to regain my focus once they left. I found that building context might take hours but could be lost by a random interruption.

3. The Phone: Same goes for the phone ringing or a text dinging. Without warning my focus was suddenly shifted, often never to be regained.

4. Email: Frequently lacking the discipline to refrain, I would sneak a peek at the incoming email on my computer or phone, distracting me from what I was doing.

5. Social Media: Focused work requires a great deal of effort and viewing social media takes virtually no effort at all. I found it difficult to focus when I had 6 different apps open on my phone or computer. Further, it has been shown that technology, and especially social media, is deliberately designed to distract and to become addictive.

6. Multi-tasking: In my quest to be productive combined with more work than time to accomplish it, I consistently tried to juggle multiple tasks at the same time. This made it impossible to attain real focus or a state of flow to my work.

I’ve since discovered that my experience has been validated by research. In one Harvard Business Review analysis, researchers discovered that it takes up to 15 minutes to return to a productive state after an interruption. Just as important, they discovered that real progress on thoughtful work requires a minimum of 15 minutes of focus, and for some work more than a 30-minute increment of time. Yet, it is rare for most workers to have even 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus in a given day.

Why Context Switching Is So Bad For Us

Context switching has been shown to negatively impact us in at least 8 significant ways.

  1. It takes time and effort to get into focus and to regain focus once it is lost.
  2. It decreases your productivity, efficiency and effectiveness.
  3. Constantly shifting context and focus creates mental and physical fatigue and exhaustion.
  4. It negatively impacts your happiness, meaningful work and job satisfaction.
  5. There is a compounding effect. The more tasks you switch between the less productive you become.
  6. It causes increasing fragmentation of your day. One study found that most people average only 3 minutes on any given task and only 2 minutes on a digital tool before moving on.
  7. It increases your stress level. Constant context shifting is stressful, even if you love your job.
  8. You are less creative. Creativity and innovation suffer when you don’t have large uninterrupted blocks of time.

6 Ways To Combat Context Switching

Reducing the amount of context switching in your day requires a concerted effort involving your schedule, your habits and your routines. Consider experimenting with the following.

1. Make an appointment with yourself. Systematically block out large chunks of uninterrupted time for everything from emails to breaks and big projects.

2. Be realistic. Allow more time than you think will be required to read emails, attend meetings, and administrative tasks.

3. Prioritize tasks and projects. Plan ahead and schedule time for meaningful work that requires high concentration first in your day.

4. Create themed days. Group tasks into themes and schedule days where all you work on are tasks of similar topic or theme. This decreases the need to change focus when you change tasks.

5. Allow time between meetings to refocus. Rather than schedule meetings on top of each other, allow 15-30 minutes between meetings to review the agenda of the upcoming meeting, who will attend, and what you wish to accomplish.

6. Build a habit of single tasking. Commit to the discipline of doing only one thing at a time. You can do this by removing distractions, being clear with those you work with about what you are trying to do and starting small and building up incrementally.

Experiment with these ideas and be patient with yourself. A few small changes can make a big difference.

Posted on August 9, 2022

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5