Are you being killed by context switching and interruptions

Are you being killed by context switching and interruptions

context switching

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In a world full of interruptions, how do you stay focused? How do you minimize noise and create your productive bubble? Well, you might think it’s simple, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do so, especially in work environments. You come to work, power your computer, and start opening tabs, apps, and others. First, email, messaging apps like Slack, calendar, organization tools, documents, reports, sites, and so on and on. Even there you are switching between tasks, or rather context switching.

It has kind of become the norm for us to function by doing multiple things at a time. Sometimes, we, oh so proudly, declare ourselves as great multitaskers. Even though, multitasking isn’t really a thing. It means doing multiple things at the same exact time, but often you can’t, like typing up two different reports at the same time, you’re merely switching from one to the other and back. 

So, that’s why we’ll turn to the term context switching and the influence of interruptions and our environment on our productivity and effectiveness. Situationism is one of the factors that influence how affected we can get. Depending on if you’re a high-reactive or low-reactive person to stimulations, it will differ how you manage your surroundings.

That deadly term – context switching

Context switching was used to describe the switching of the CPU from one state of the process to another. Computers used to struggle when switching tasks and thus accumulated switching costs. Now, this term is used in software development to describe human behavior when programmers are switched from one project or task to another. It’s a common occurrence for developers to be jumping projects or to switch teams on a regular. 

So, context switching is described as a tendency to switch between tasks, jumping from one to the other. Often, we are interrupted and asked to go from doing one thing to starting another, but interruptions can serve as context switchers as well. If somebody asks you a question amidst performing a task, you turn your focus there and it will be harder to get back in your flow.

If you truly look at your day, you can determine how many times you were interrupted. It’s quite daunting when you realize that your focus has been demanded far too many times and that you find it harder and harder to get back in the thick of things. In software development, it’s no strange occurrence that context switching becomes the norm. It has become our mental state that our day will be filled with events that can disperse our focus. 

Our mind is highly dependent on external stimulations and others, so it is easily disrupted by anything from noise to questions, emails, and instant messages. And those are the small things. The problem is that you’re still thinking about those things when you’re starting a new task. You, unintentionally, transfer what you were doing before (attention residue) to what you are doing now, and cannot completely turn your focus where it should be. Even when you reach the point where you are focused and productive, you need to be aware of the time it took you to get there.

Oh-oh, you’re a developer, and context switching is near

You’re a software developer or you work in IT, right? Well, you are definitely not safe from context switching. Actually, you might be even more influenced by it. Projects come and go, and often you work on multiple ones. If you’re a full-stack developer, you’re also jumping from frontend to backend, and it can distract you from focusing on one thing. Please, do count the number of tabs you have open and how many tools and apps are you using. Did you catch yourself thinking and doing multiple things at the same time as reading this blog post? How many times were you interrupted by something?

Let’s focus (intentional pun here) on the process and things you do as a developer, for example. You’re writing code on one project. In comes a hang-up and you’re stuck. You’ll start researching what and how you can fix it. At the same time, you might be trying to figure out how to finish this, while simultaneously starting to work on another piece of code. In comes your team lead with code review, and now you’re jumping to do this. In the meantime, you get a couple of Slack messages from colleagues asking for help. Suddenly, you get a notification about a meeting. After that, you jump into another project. And so on and on, it goes in a circle. Often, what you have planned doesn’t always go the way you wanted. And that’s just Monday. Now think about the rest of the week and possible interruptions that might happen. 

Retrace your focus. Was it always there or it took you some time to even switch your mind to what happened next? It’s a recurring issue you’re aware of, but don’t know how to fix or you just roll with it. The demand for our attention is ever-rising and thus context switching comes at an all-time high.

The costs of context switching might not be in your accounting books, but they still matter

As with anything when time is lost, context switching also comes with a cost. One of the major costs is the productivity cost. If you can’t properly commit yourself to the task, you won’t fully and most effectively do it, or it will take way too long to finish it. 

Other costs include shorter attention spans, constant urgency, wasted time, and burnout. With continuous task switching, your attention is split between more things or obligations, so one will definitely suffer over the other. Also, by being surrounded by constant happenings, we are in a state of urgency. We feel the need to immediately answer emails, and messages, do reports on demand, and others. In terms of software development, that can result in a bad rushed code, for example.

So much time is wasted when you’re not finishing your task and then moving to the other. Because of the before-mentioned attention residue, there is more time needed to adjust and focus on the new obligation. And often, by being bombarded with multiple things all at once, we can quickly reach the burnout phase. Doing everything at once, multitasking, and feeling the need to address everything immediately can lead to us losing the time to breathe.

So how to reduce the cost of context switching?

When you are aware of context switching, you can take steps how to minimize it and its cost.

Identify what causes the most context switching

Try to retrace your day and identify when and how were you interrupted. Pay attention to what makes you lose focus so you can try and influence it. By outlining what makes you less productive in tasks, you can prepare actions to reduce it. Are you overwhelmed by phone calls, messages, and emails? Are you constantly interrupted by meetings or your colleagues? These are all points of interruption that demand your attention and split it from your current task.

Establish workflows and routines

Make your day more of a routine and a stable workflow. No, it doesn’t mean that each day has to be the same and repetitive but establish how you do certain things, and when, so people around you can know when not to disturb you. You can also outline how you approach tasks to optimize your work, so even if you get interrupted you can far more easily pick up where you left off.

Review your commitments and schedule

Go through your schedule to see which meetings and calls are necessary and which are not. Try to organize your days and prioritize tasks. Your calendar should reflect your priorities so others can see them and adjust accordingly. But be careful, you don’t want to overfill your schedule and make it a priority, because then you’ll spend way too much time coordinating with others.

Batch tasks by function or objective

If you know you have tasks of similar nature, try to group them in batches so you’ll have the same approach and methods to achieving them. If your day is about implementing a certain feature in your software then you’ll focus on that and organize the day as this. Block out a time for certain tasks. Mark in your calendar blocks of time for when you want to focus on one thing so new tasks won’t come in that period.

Manage your notifications and quiet time

In messaging apps, mute your notifications or use do not disturb. This way you indicate to others not to contact you unless it’s an emergency. They’ll know you’re working on something and that you need some quiet time to focus. Don’t forget to sync your messaging app with your calendar so everyone will know if you’re in a meeting or performing other tasks.

Create restorative niches

Restorative niches are times to unwind or regroup. It’s sort of a reset button but in form of a break where you try to cleanse your mind from a previous task. This can be you working on something you’re passionate about, some project or idea. It can also be a short walk, listening to music, or a coffee break. These are important since they allow you to divide your time between tasks and sort of mentally prepare you for the next one.

Can you lead a work life without context-switching?

With everything and everyone vying for our attention, it’s a bit harder to balance obligations and tasks. Focusing on one thing at a time has become almost impossible. That’s the reason why we have become so dependent on calendars and organization apps. 

Is it possible to completely lead a life without context switching? Unfortunately, no. The only thing you can do is try to minimize it. You can schedule “alone” and “do not disturb” time blocks, or you can try organizing tasks by priority, subjects, and objective. Reducing context switching depends a lot on the company and team culture. It’s your work environment that defines if you can concentrate enough on important tasks. If you have their support, your work can get more efficient and productive, and you will have fewer and fewer unnecessary interruptions. 

Context switching can kill your productivity. And that’s why, a developer or anyone in software development should take notice of it. Recognize it, minimize it, and get more efficient. 

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