Context Switching: 10 shortcuts for gaining back focus in record time

Claire Emerson
Claire Emerson
· 11 min read

Being able to effectively context switch is an underrated skill.

Mainly because it’s almost impossible to avoid rapid context switching when you work with a team, work from home, or simply have a mind that tends to muddle with many problems at once.

And while you’ll find most articles tell you how it’s killing your productivity and multitasking is the devil (both true!) — I’d argue it’s more helpful to see how some context switching can be a good thing. And learn how to build the skill of switching tasks more mindfully and intentionally.

So let’s take a look at how you can make the most of switching contexts throughout your day, as well as how to engage in deep work and trigger your focused flow states as quickly as possible.

Context switching isn’t a productivity killer

It’s a focus killer.

This is why tactics like batching work, theming your days, and turning off notifications during deep work periods are so widely cherished.

But the problem is that you can still get things done (and be considered efficient) by “multitasking.”

For instance, when I worked as a Finance Officer in a government agency, I spent my entire day flip-flopping between tasks. From emails to phone calls, to internal chats, to manager and colleague requests (and even the birthday celebration for Susan in HR).

And despite how much context switching I did, I could still outstrip most of my team in how productive I was.  

But just because you feel productive doesn’t mean you’re being effective.

Or giving yourself the chance to engage and challenge yourself with meaningful work that moves the needle and drives results.

This is where context switching can take a heavy toll.

Excessive context switching can wreak havoc on your work satisfaction

Despite our best efforts, we all tend to give into disruptions and get distracted. And when we fail to focus, context switching becomes more prevalent (and our productivity takes a plunge.)

Excessive interruptions throughout your day can choke your progress and yield unhealthy boundaries that burden your best work — leading to dissatisfaction and frustration with your productivity levels.

When we switch tasks unintentionally — not only is there a time and cognitive cost of having to orient yourself with a new activity or resume an interrupted task (when you finally remember what it was) — we also experience a reduction in meaningful accomplishment. Mainly due to spending too little time on a complex project.

Notably, though, there are some instances where context switching can be helpful. And there are times when it makes sense to lean into the thoughts and tasks that pull your attention.

External vs. Internal Context Switching

If you run through your regular week of work, you’ll find that you likely experience two types of interruptions that cause you to switch tasks:

  1. External interruptions (when you have no choice but to switch context). Think; phone calls, email pings, chat notifications, your dog howling to go outside. And;
  2. Internal interruptions (when you allow your brain to go where it goes naturally). Think: taking a break to let a problem incubate or finding a research source or documentation to provide new ideas, support your analysis, and refresh your thinking.

Internal interruptions — that relate to the current project or task you're working on — can be beneficial. They allow for mindful breaks, are within your control, and help you engage with the work you’re doing rather than disrupt it.

Whereas external (often passive) context switches have the opposite effect and fall into the bucket of “multitasking.” Which, despite what we’re led to believe — is not an ability we possess (or should be proud of.)

“The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than the average and often worse.“  David Strayer, professor of Cognition and Neural Science, University of Utah

Multitasking is not an art form — it’s a lie.

Because like a computer, the human brain cannot perform two tasks at once.

“Our research offers neurological evidence that our brain can not effectively do two things at once”

— Rene Marois. Ph.D., Department of Psychology Vanderbilt University

"Our findings also suggest that, even after extensive practice, our brain does not really do two tasks at once. It is still processing one task at a time, but it does it so fast it gives us the illusion we are doing two tasks simultaneously."

— Paul E. Dux, a former research fellow at Vanderbilt.

And as Dave Crenshaw notes in his book The Myth of Multitasking — what we’re actually doing when we say we’re multitasking is “switchtasking”; making small mental leaps from one task to the other, and then back again.

And it’s those switches in attention that make you less effective.

“When you switchtask, you always incur a cost. It’s simply a matter of math. It’s unavoidable.”
— Dave Crenshaw.

The trickle-down effects of mindless multitasking

Managing multiple activities has become a fundamental characteristic of modern work life.

We can quickly see how working within an IT-rich environment enables one person to do many things. But as our work roles expand — the scope of work increases — leading to a tendency to switch (often mindlessly) between the various hats we wear throughout the day.  

And despite the apparent benefits of intentional, internal context switching — taking a fragmented approach to work means your attention, energy, and progress levels suffer.

Left unchecked, a day full of interruptions and trying to multitask can lead to:  

1. Time and cognitive costs associated with switching tasks.

What starts as an hour of solid work time can be stripped away by (mostly) external interruptions that can leave you with half the time you started with. And only allow for small pockets of 5-10 minutes slots where you focus on the task you intended to do.

You’ll also battle with the mental struggle of refocusing and reorienting yourself after every interruption, which leads to fatigue, frustration, and higher stress levels.

2. Negative effects on relationships.

What’s arguably worse than the time and cognitive cost of constant, uncontrolled context switching — is the cost of trying to “multitask” when it involves another person.

“People deserve our full attention, whether at home or work. When we give them only partial piecemeal attention, the switching costs extend to damaging relationships.”

— Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking

Think about how you feel when you know someone isn’t giving you their full attention:

Whether it’s in a meeting and you can see a colleague tapping away at their phone or when you’re talking to your spouse while they’re clearly more interested in the TV — this kind of behavior is discouraging and makes you feel unimportant.

And if you’re doing it to other people (even without realizing it), it’s hurting that relationship.

“The single most common way multitasking can hurt us is by affecting our relationships. When I’m not giving you 100 percent, that means I do not consider you worthy of my 100 percent”

— Dr. Amit Sood, professor, and chair, Mayo Clinic Mind Body Initiative.

3. Distorted sense of how long things take.

Fragmented work can lead to a warped sense of time when it comes to your task management and ability to estimate. And that distortion leads to that horrible (and likely well-known) feeling of “always being behind.”

Humans are already terrible at estimating, so you’re doing yourself zero favors by fragmenting your work to the extent that you create unrealistic ideas about how long things take.

10 shortcuts for gaining back focus in record time (and making space for deep work)

As you can see, context switching and (the myth of) multitasking can affect more than just your productivity levels.

But despite the drawbacks — with training and practice, you can get better at switching between tasks (in a more mindful way) and create habits and systems that protect your focus and make you more effective.

#1 — Protect your best two hours

Deliberately dedicating time to engage in deep work drives tangible results for you and your business. And if you can put it on the calendar every single day — you can dramatically increase your output (on the work that matters most.)

Two interruptions to consider placing better boundaries around:

  • Managing phone calls — if someone calls when you don’t want to be interrupted, have a specific voicemail letting people know when you’ll call them back. Having two time slots a day is good practice for letting people know when they can contact you (or when you’ll call back), say 12pm and 4pm.
  • Managing emails — dedicate time (or specific days) for following up with important emails. And check out this epic post if you are interested in more ways for managing this communication channel better.

Note: as we found in this article — your best work hours might not be in the morning. So make a point of figuring out when you’re the most attentive and focused. And protect that time at all costs!

#2 — Schedule deep work when no one else is awake or online

If you can swing it, this is the perfect solution to making sure you give yourself at least two uninterrupted hours every day.

It’s the easiest way to ensure you won’t get distracted by outside influences.

Use this dedicated quiet time to work on meaningful, challenging tasks so that when everyone else does come online or into the office — you’re core work is complete. And giving into external interruptions won’t cost you as much.

#3 — The Power of When: Set the expectation of your availability and batch important conversations

When you work in a team, with clients or outside collaborators (or even simply from home, with kids, partners, or pets), the most frequent interruptions are often from other people.

But you can combat this by setting recurring “office hours” or “open for business” boundaries where you can be contactable.

Remember, we want to protect our most productive hours of the day.

  • For someone you speak to more than five times a day, a recurring (twenty-minute) meeting every day is adequate. It will reduce interruptions and provide a standard time for addressing their pressing needs and questions.
  • A weekly meeting will likely suffice for someone who only needs your attention once a day.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to schedule these recurring meetings with everyone — only the people accountable to you or who have regular (important) questions for you.

You can also encourage other team members to introduce their own office hours.

As Cal Newport explains:

Everyone maintains regular office hours: set times each week during which they’re always available via video conference, chat, and phone. During these times, you can digitally stop by and chat without a prior appointment.

#4 — Do Not Disturb: Other people's urgency is not your emergency

A new term I discovered in the book The Myth of Multitasking is “impatientcies” — questions, tasks, and queries from others masked as emergencies (but aren’t really that all.)

An easy way to decipher between impatientcies and true emergencies is to ask the requesting person whether this can wait until your scheduled one-on-one meeting (or an alternative communication rule that you’ve set up.)

The upside to asking the question every time someone comes to you with an “emergency” is they’ll begin to decide for themselves before they interrupt you. This also helps them prepare better for the meetings you do need to have.

Of course, there will be times when urgent things pop up. But it’s rare.

What’s more important to worry about is maintaining your strict set of rules and boundaries around your availability, so you can focus when you need to.

Because let’s face it — if you don’t stick to, respect, and enforce your boundaries, why should anyone else?

#5 — Engage Your Flow States: Prioritize the tasks that take the most effort but are also the most interesting

People say to “eat the frog” (to do the hard, challenging thing first) because we feel good when we accomplish meaningful work, and those positive emotions help us power up.

Focused, deep work can be energizing.

We’re also less likely to be distracted and give into external interruptions when we're in flow (a powerful side-effect of deep work).

Especially if you’ve prepared your space accordingly, like:

  • switched off notifications
  • popped your phone in another room, and
  • let everyone you know (who might be likely to disrupt your deep work) that you’re unavailable.

Plus, when you give yourself the space to actually complete complex tasks, your attention can shift more easily onto any subsequent tasks.

#6 — Free, Focus, Buffer: Theming your days like a pro

At Strategic Coach, they have a time system designed specifically for entrepreneurs.

It introduces three types of “themed” days:

  • Free Days that are entirely disconnected from the business and are solely for rejuvenation
  • Focus Days are centered on money-making activities and focused work, and
  • Buffer Days are for preparation and administrative tasks that can be batched (or delegated) to make context switching less of a strain.

Theming your days like this can help create boundaries for yourself and others. And set the expectation for what happens when.

#7 — Start-Focus-Finish: A 3 step formula for getting it done

If you shift tasks without having finished something, that’s where your performance begins to drop. Mainly because unfinished tasks keep you on the hook.

This means that context switching is less of a problem when you can complete a task before you have to switch. And in most cases, the simplest way to do this is to become excellent at breaking tasks down into smaller chunks.

As I mentioned earlier, years of multitasking can distort our view of how long things take. So it takes practice.

But the smaller you can make each task, the more likely you can finish it within the time you give it. And incur less time and cognitive cost to switching to whatever comes next.

Adding in a timer for your tasks can also spur you to finish.

Research has shown that time pressure (when combined with task completion) can increase confidence and provides the necessary incentive to transition to tasks more effectively.

But, as you can imagine, the downside to introducing time pressure to your tasks is that you may not be able to finish the job within the set timeframe. This means you have to train yourself to get better at breaking your work up into bite-sized pieces (think of it as intentional fragmentation.)

#8 — Visual cues, knowing your next move, and noting random thoughts

One of my fool-proof systems for minimizing context switching costs is Personal Kanban.

It can train you to break big tasks down, and because you set your priority tasks at the beginning of every week — the next job is lined up and ready to go. So you’re wasting less time and energy deciding what to do next.

Plus, when interruptions do arise, you can easily recall what you were working on (because it’s staring you in the face.).

The other helpful analog ritual I use is the “Blank Page” method from my friend Rob Hatch (author of Attention):

Use a single blank page to note down any random thoughts, tasks, or interruptions that come up when you’re trying to focus. This get’s them out of your head quickly and allows you to resume work immediately. Later, you can review the brain dump and deal with the list as part of your end-of-day wind-down ritual.

#9 — Reorientation rituals

Speaking of rituals, sometimes the best way to reduce counter-productive context switching is to give yourself reminders and practices to remain focused.

If you know your attention often strays, and you find yourself opening that Twitter tab to “just take a quick look,” — drown yourself with cues that remind you to focus on what you intended to do.

When I first started freelancing (and learning about productivity,) I used a “focus rock” on my desk. It was literally a rock I picked up from my daily walk, which I placed in a visible spot on my desk. And seeing it would remind me to stay on task (or stop doing the other thing I’d just distracted myself with.)

I also use a focus mist (a blend of pure essential oils) that I spray into the air and inhale when feeling overwhelmed or distracted.

You can also try noise-canceling headphones to set the tone for focused work. I know some people who find the simple act of putting their headphones on initiates their flow states and helps them concentrate.

#10 — Mindful breaks and meditation

Our final tip is one you’re likely familiar with but can have a profound impact on your concentration and energy levels.

A mindful break is different from getting up and grabbing a snack and some water.

In this scenario, you can use meditation to clear your head and regain focus from a long day, an interruption, or too many meetings.

The Headspace app, in particular, has some excellent guided meditations on various techniques for increasing focus.

But ten deep breaths can also do the trick.

Taking more mindful breaks can help ease tension and reduce the overload of information rattling around in your brain. And you’ll feel calmer and more capable of focusing on the task at hand.

You can’t avoid context switching but can make space for deep work

Awareness is the first step to wielding more control over your day and directing your attention where you want it to go.

Once you acknowledge the significant time and cognitive costs of unintentional context switching — you can move into the phase of developing boundaries and practices that protect your time, provide more structure to your day, and improve how you communicate and collaborate with the people you work with.

Five key takeaways from the practices we talked about today are:

  1. Minimize external interruptions to reduce the cost of context switching (and our tendency to multitask)
  2. Allow for and lean into internal interruptions that align with your current task or project
  3. Structure your workday to maximize your mental energy
  4. Find ways to refocus and reorient quickly
  5. Prioritize the activities and events that spark joy, fill your cup and give you a deep sense of satisfaction.