Context switching: How to manage it

30 Nov 2022 by Scott Middleton

Context switching, the ability to intellectually move between different types of tasks, becomes more and more necessary as you take on more and more responsibility.

In my personal journey I’ve shifted from engineer to leading teams to being a CEO.

I’ve gone from being able to spend all week focused on one task to having to cover the huge variety of contexts that come with growing a $10m+ revenue business, multiple important client relationships and projects, a number of ventures and different technology domains.

Along this journey I’ve had to learn how to context switch. It’s a repeat theme I work on in my 1-1s with my direct team and with people in the broader team.

What is context switching?

Context switching is where you need to stop work on something in one context in order to perform work on something in a different context. This could be doing work between two different types of projects or it could be doing different types of work within the one project (e.g. switching from analytical work or coding to running a meeting).

A study by Cornell University and Qatalog found that almost half of people surveyed said that context switching makes them less productive and causes fatigue.

How do you manage context switching?

Rather than accept context switching as a productivity drain or an emotional drain I’ve deliberately set about working to accept it as a reality and decrease its impact on my productivity and emotional wellbeing.

Here is my toolbox for managing context switching that’s worked for me in roles like engineering, product management, sales, team leadership, being a CEO and, just as importantly, being a parent.

  1. Plan your time: deliberately plan your time. I do this on a weekly basis more so than a daily basis as I find the unit of a week easier to work with than a day. It’s impossible to cover all the contexts you need in a day. Plan to the 15 or 30 minute increment.
  2. Review your time: review where your time went. Your time and where you spend it is your most valuable resource. You need to know where it is going because you need to know if the plans you make are accurate or if you need to improve your planning. This is one of the biggest ones I see people missing. I’m astounded when people argue against tracking time. 
  3. Bucket time: group similar tasks together. Put related tasks for a project or style of working together.
  4. Defend time and your state: defend your time blocks but also, if you’re in context on something and need to stay there, then don’t answer that phone call or email. Defend your time and the state you are in. Nothing is ever that urgent that it can’t wait 2 hours. If in doubt ask “hey can it wait 2 hours” or “can we do X time” and more often than not it’s not a problem at all.
  5. Where I Got To Notes: when I’m working on longer running projects that need to be spaced over weeks due to practical necessity I keep a note on each one that tells me exactly what the last thing in my mind was when I finished working on the task and what I think I should do next. It just needs to be a few paragraphs. Reading these let’s me get back into context much faster.
  6. Learn your energy cycles: Everyone has energy cycles that match certain styles of work. For example, I’m able to perform deep work in the morning and late afternoon/evening. From 11am to 4pm I rarely get creative, insightful deep work done so I aim to take meetings, edit documents (edit is easier than create) and do small, straightforward tasks.
  7. Find ways to trick yourself: you also need to employ a variety of ideas to trick yourself into productivity. These are different per person and, for me personally, they vary overtime. If I employ one tactic too much then it loses its effectiveness. Some of the tricks I use are changing physical location for certain tasks (e.g. café to write, meeting room for important calls), asking myself to “switch operating modes” (yep super geeky), purposely procrastinating, opening the files, start the task but in the wrong way purposefully (e.g. insert gibberish into a slide), using different desktops for different tasks, closing every window when I need to switch (to flush my brain).  
  8. Find ways to blend contexts: Rather than seeing project X and Y as different how can you merge them together intellectually to reduce the intellectual switching cost. This doesn’t always work, but sometimes can.

Still stuck?

Even with these tactics people I work with on this (including myself) still experience productivity and emotional drain.

Some of the common challenges they face are:

  1. Not defending time: They allow a call or meeting to be booked over their allocated time. This has two parts to it:
    1. Often they say “my team needed this” or “my boss told me” or “my customer demanded it” but when I probe there was no polite attempt to find a new time. Then when I encourage them to ask if they can do a different time next time it happens, usually everything is fine and a new time is found.
    1. It can also be that they haven’t planned and reviewed well. They keep trying to do a certain type of task in a certain context where it’s just not practical.
  2. Not reviewing time: People keep making plans but just not reflecting at all on where time went and learning from that experience in how they need to improve their plans.
  3. Not involving their team mates: Tell your team mates what you are doing. Let them know what times you want to block or bucket for different types of work. I think you’ll find that they’re excited about this because they are likely going through similar challenges.
  4. Responsiveness: people, rightly, feel the need to be responsive. However, they take it a little too far in that you can respond without needing to context switch. You can say “hey I’ve seen this, I’ll get back to you later today” without needing to understand the context of their ask in any detail. They feel heard and responded to, you keep your context.
  5. Thinking they’re superhuman productivity machines: people think they can power through because others do. The reality is context switching and productivity is a challenge everyone manages themselves through. Sometimes it just isn’t clicking. Be ok with this and take a break. You might come back more productive but you might not, just don’t beat yourself up about it.
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