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Reduce Context-Switching to Increase Productivity

Every time we switch between apps, toggle between tabs and hop in and out of meetings - we switch context and there's a cost

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In 2020, we’ve had to dramatically change the way we work. Knowledge workers had to quickly learn and adapt to tools they’d never used before, while companies tried their hardest to keep their workers productive despite new distractions. In an effort to keep everyone online and working to their highest potential, too many tools can have the opposite effect and be the antithesis to productivity. In fact, according to an Asana survey conducted in October 2020, workers are switching between an average of 10 apps 25 times per day, resulting in communication snafus, reduced efficiency and increased duplication of work.

But what actually happens when we switch from one task to another and how does it hurt our productivity?

We all have the tendency to try to multitask – switching between apps, toggling between tabs and hopping in and out of meetings – but every time we do that, there’s a cost. This is what researchers call task and context switching. While multitasking may give an outward appearance of productivity, it prevents us from finding time to intentionally sit down and focus, which has huge negative consequences for our potential productivity. As our focus becomes fragmented, it creates an endless build-up of attention residue where we continue thinking about a past task even once we’ve moved onto another, adding to our cognitive overwhelm.

Additionally, task and context switching contributes to burnout. The more we switch, the harder it becomes to get back to our original task, costing us hours of time, while increasing our stress levels. Feeling stressed out reading this? While there is no magic formula that works for everyone, there are a few changes you can make to minimize your switch costs and stay focused. 

Minimize distractions

This is easier said than done, but it’s important to minimize distractions when leveraging different tools and technologies during remote work. Some simple tricks to start with: use “Do Not Disturb” and other “Away” features on your applications, which have become standardized across most productivity tools. These features can help empower your team by limiting interruptions and allowing them to focus on important tasks that require deeper concentration. Look into automated messages in Slack – they’re easy to set up and will quickly let your team members know that you are busy and will get back to them once you are done. Another thing I do is block off time on my calendar for focus time – with a request for others to ask permission before scheduling a meeting with me at that time. With these tips, your teammates have all the tools they need to understand your situation and can be more mindful of your time.

Reduce friction between apps 

Another thing you and your team should agree on is the number of platforms and tools you’re going to use to communicate with each other. For example, some companies use Google Hangouts, Slack, Skype and phone calls – four tools with the same purpose! Think about what your needs are, choose one or two tools that make sense for your team, and stick to your tools of choice. 

Once you agree on the tools you want to use, make sure they integrate with each other to reduce the friction between applications. For example, when I am using Slack with a colleague while also working within an Asana task, I link to the task within our existing Slack message to avoid switching between platforms. Similarly, if you’re using Microsoft Teams to collaborate on a project, you can turn action items into Asana tasks directly within Microsoft Teams. Finding applications that integrate with each other saves time and avoids “work about work.” 

Be an example

As a manager, I do my best to model minimizing context-switching. While it’s impossible to remove context-switching entirely, you can be in the driver seat by thinking through the purpose of your day. Each morning, I review my inbox, tasks, and scheduled meetings, and rearrange and reprioritize as needed to make the best use of my time. For example, rather than having random 30-minute blocks where I try to shoehorn in focused work, each morning I’ll shift the day’s meetings around so that I have longer blocks of uninterrupted focused work time.

It can also be helpful to integrate automation features into your workflows and your inbox. Automation is key to creating a connected workplace, especially when working across time zones. Choosing tools that can complete regular tasks like moving data from one source to another both streamlines workflows and makes work more engaging by reducing time spent on repetitive work. 

It’s important to understand that avoiding context-switching and achieving productivity comes in ebbs and flows, and can’t be mastered overnight. You will have to take it step by step: start with one of the above tips and take it from there. You’ll be surprised by how big of a difference a few subtle changes can make. 

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