How to Handle Context Switching and Become More Productive

Jess Spoll, Former Senior Product Manager

Article Category: #News & Culture

Posted on

In the modern workplace, we’ve been trained to multitask. But is multitasking hurting our productivity?

If you’re a software engineer who’s constantly being interrupted by Slack messages or taps on the shoulder, how much time are you wasting by having to get your mind back to the original problem at hand? If you’re a project manager trying to write an email, while another email marked *urgent* comes in, have you ever completely forgotten about the first email?

At an agency, context switching can feel like an inevitable evil. You’re typically working on more than one project at a time, and trying to balance all of them can be tough—especially with the ubiquity of messaging services and notifications. I don’t believe there’s a way to fully prevent context switching. But there are things you can do to maximize productivity when switching between different projects and to-do items.

We’re entering a new year, which means it’s time to take back control of your time. Here are some strategies that have worked for me.

Plan Your Focus Time

No matter what your position is, you will need time during the work week to focus on specific tasks. These are tasks that need more of your mental energy and can’t be done while multitasking. For these, you should block out your calendar in advance.

At the beginning of the week, figure out what bigger things you need to get done that week that you’ll need focused time for.

Estimate how much time you’ll need for those things, and block off your calendar with enough time to focus on each of them. If it’s a task that someone else is waiting on you for, let that person know when you plan on tackling it to set clear expectations.

If people can see your calendar, title the block “Focus time” or something that indicates that they shouldn’t schedule meetings over that time.

If you are going to block off your whole calendar with focus time, let your co-workers know if that’s flexible or not. For instance, can they schedule a meeting at the beginning or end of that time if they really need to meet? Or can you get in earlier or later that day to meet with your co-workers? You likely won’t be able to get away with avoiding all meetings, but you can avoid having your day broken up by a bunch of them.

Turn Your Phone on Do Not Disturb

If your phone is on vibrate, or even if it’s not but you keep it on your desk, you’re likely being distracted by notifications popping up on your home screen. Even if you have the self control to not pick up the phone and open the notification, you’re still being distracted by reading it.

When I started to set my phone to always turn on ‘do not disturb’ mode from 9am-5pm every day, the difference was remarkable. I realized that I had been wasting so much time being distracted by pointless notifications. When I use Do Not Disturb mode, I choose when I want to pick up my phone and read through the notifications.

One thing to note is that Do Not Disturb mode will send your phone calls straight to voicemail. This is great for when you want to focus and don’t want to be distracted by robo callers, but less great if you are expecting a call and don’t realize that it will be sent straight to voicemail. You can change your settings to allow calls and you can even set it to only allow calls from certain people.

Make sure to set your connected watch to Do Not Disturb as well, if you are used to getting notifications on there.

Minimize Slack Distractions

Ah, Slack. The culprit of much workplace distraction. Slack is a great tool, but when you want to focus, it can be problematic.

Start by turning off or muting random or just-for-fun channels. This means that you can always go to them if you want a break or distraction, but messages from these channels won’t show up as unread messages on the desktop icon or on the channel name.

Then, go to Preferences -> Notifications and change “Notify me about…” to only Direct messages, mentions, and keywords. This means you’ll only get a pop-up banner on your screen for DMs or when people @ you in a channel. You can also set specific keywords to notify you. Note that you can also change these preferences on a channel-by-channel basis.

Star your favorite or most-used channels so that you can quickly open Slack and see if there’s been activity on them. This puts the reins back in your hands for when you want to be distracted, rather than taking away your focus upon every message.

Use Slack’s “Do Not Disturb” feature when you want true focus time. No matter what your notification settings are, this will ensure that you do not get notified. To turn this on, click on the bell icon at the top left of your app, next to the workspace title, and choose the duration.

You can also set your Slack status to let your co-workers know what you’re doing. If you’ve blocked off your calendar for focus time, and want to let people know to only message you if it’s an emergency, you can set your status to the X emoji and write “Do Not Disturb - Focusing.” You can set your status by clicking on the workspace title and then “set a status.”

Keep Notes for Yourself

You end up spending a lot of mental energy to keep things in your mind. If you are in a meeting where you’re trying to focus and you get a message that you’ll eventually need to answer, you’re going to be distracted from your meeting by trying to remember that you need to answer someone.

Avoid this problem by always keeping a notepad by you. Jot down to-do items as soon as they happen. Jotting down “Answer Kelly’s email” or “write a bug ticket for the issue that Dave found” as soon as you’re made aware of those tasks will keep you from having to use mental energy to remember to do them later.

In a similar vein, organize your notes! If someone tells you something in a meeting that you want to remember later, title the note with the meeting date or the project name and keep that as a running list of notes for the future. If they are actionable, turn them into to-dos in a more organized task list. Having randomly scribbled notes here and there will ensure that you forget about them.

Write, Then Re-Write Your To-Do List

Similar to the last point, you should keep an organized list of tasks to do. If you’ve started to jot down tasks as they come up, that’s great, but writing them once and never looking at them again won’t get you anywhere.

I keep a running to-do list in a notebook that sits right next to my keyboard. I take it with me to all my meetings. It’s broken up into groupings that categorize my task activities, in my case, organized by client and by project.

Each day, I re-write the list. You can imagine that your perfectly organized to-do list might get disorganized by the end of a full day of jotting new tasks down. Rewriting it each day makes sure that the tasks stay fresh in my mind, are organized by priority (which could shift daily), and makes sure that nothing falls through the cracks.

Having it right by my side at all times ensures that the tasks actually get done. Re-writing it each day in terms of priority and project helps me figure out what I need to do ASAP and what I can save for future focus time.

Understanding how much time you’re losing by multi-tasking might help you get yourself in gear and implement some of these strategies. According to the American Psychological Association, even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time. Considering your productive time is only the time between meetings, you could be left with very little real productive time during your work day.

Context switching is a fact of life these days. But it’s a new year, and an opportune time to set boundaries for the things that distract you. What strategies do you use to minimize context switching? I’d love to hear them!

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