Context switches are a tax on our productivity. And it's a tax we're almost unconscious of. But when we're interrupted to help someone else with their work - or to jump into another app to message someone - it takes us precious time to get back to a productive, creative state of flow. There's ways to avoid that, though, and gain back precious focused time for your entire team. Here's how.
The adoption of e-mail, and later team chat, inadvertently led us into constant context switching and interrupted work.
I previously wrote about the haphazard evolution of the internet leading us to sub-optimal workflows. A reader then pointed me to Cal Newport's excellent “A World Without E-mail,” which explains exactly how this came to be. Cal's rich research into the history of communication at work shows how the adoption of e-mail, and later team chat, inadvertently led us into constant context switching and filled our days with interruptions. Nir Eyal's “Indistractable” provides lots of evidence about how brutal these interruptions are to our ability to concentrate and produce good work. They also cause anxiety and generally wreck our enjoyment from our jobs. But new ideas are taking hold, and new habits and ways of collaborating are forming. These can unlock the highly sought after ‘in-flow’ state more regularly. We highlight four of these below, but to understand why they’re important, we first have to go to the root of the problem.
We’re wasting an hour per day on context switching. That’s $10,000 per year.
We're essentially all working with brakes on - an enormous drag on our productivity. It’s caused by context switching. Like when we jump between apps and tasks to search for some piece of info. Or, when you continue a conversation in a separate chat app to the one you do your work in. Often, we start by just looking for an answer in a chat channel history, but find ourselves losing track in a pile of other, new, incoming messages.
Our brains, meanwhile, are capable of only holding one thing at a time. So we don't notice how distracted this makes us and how inefficient this constant de-focusing is. Instead, we just carry on with a false sense of speed from rapidly switching and tackling multiple things. The reality is like one of these movies where in the hero's mind, he's a champion, and then the camera shows us how in reality, he's flailing miserably.
When lab studies keep track of how long it takes to complete tasks in different conditions, we can see that splitting our attention this way simply destroys productivity. Even a single switch every 30 minutes (which is far less than many knowledge workers are able to attain in their average work day) could end up costing over an hour of productivity a day. That's an hour less in the evening to be with your kids or your partner, and for the average knowledge worker (that’s you), this comes to around $10,000 a year. And this is just a conservative, straight-up salary cost of wasting 10-12% of your daily working hours. It doesn't include the barriers this places on creativity and problem-solving, the misery from constant task switching, and the systemic costs of more people and more orchestration needed in bigger orgs.
So why do we context switch so much in the first place?
First, we need stuff.
We need help because we're not sure how to do something in a complex SaaS tool, like AWS or HubSpot. Or we need feedback after creating something - "Is this copy updated?” "Was that the intent for this design?" We need approval, or someone else to continue where we left off, or to let them know it’s ready.
Second, responsiveness unlocks speed.
So when, in turn, other people ask us for help, feedback, approval, or hand over their part, we want to unblock them as fast as possible. How? By responding and attending to what they need of course, before going back to our other work-in-progress. Doing that, though, interrupts them again, and continues this vicious cycle.
This reveals a fundamental tradeoff, one that seems to have no solution. On one side is latency - how fast can an item that needs several back-and-forths between multiple collaborators be completed, with the cost every back and forth imposes. On the other is throughput - the total amount of projects we can churn out as an organization in a long period of time by making sure we never 'wait' and always work on something.
Scheduling theory, a mathematical formulation dealing with these situations, is filled with surprising results. Sometimes, adding one more person that's able to handle a task reduces waiting times for other tasks by 50x! But even without doing lots of math, we have a way out, by adopting these four tweaks:
- Reduce the number of back-and-forths needed to accomplish something, reducing the number of interruptions. When possible, give people authority to make reversible decisions themselves. Easy-to-find, clear documentation that reduces the need to ask for help is another way to achieve that.
- Increase the number of people able to handle something, increasing the 'slack' in the system. With more people who can handle a task, there’s more odds of someone wrapping up a deep work session and becoming available to help. However, you need a mechanism so when someone needs help or feedback, it doesn't break everyone’s concentration. An email CCing the whole team or a message in a channel isn't great (that's the wrong kind of slack 😆). GitHub and similar tools have shared queues of pull requests/diffs awaiting review, and picking the next one removes it from everyone's queue: A much less disruptive workflow for utilizing several people that can work on something. Similarly, in Cord, you just leave the message on the page and the people involved with the tool will see it and pick it up.
- Don't break your deep flow state by switching into a separate app just to say you're done or ask a question. By the time you took a screenshot... annotated it... switched to Slack... found the right channel... wrote the message... you've completely lost your flow and your focus. You're very likely to encounter other distracting messages or unread channels on the way, too. Just finding the right tab again in the sea of identical icons is a drain on your dwindling focus. Especially if there's then back and forth - waiting for new messages and ⌘+Tab-ing between the app where you work and the communication tool. That's why we built Cord, so you can collaborate in context, right next to what you work on, without losing focus.
- Make sure that when you go back into a project, all the background info is easily accessible. In Cord, it's just there where you left off, next to the page you were working on. All conversations about this item and any new messages, tasks and annotations are right where you need them. This is the ideal solution, otherwise you find yourself searching multiple chats, task managers and internal wikis to remember where you stopped, what were the last decisions made and what's the next step. And you can trust that anyone stepping in for you will find all that info there as well.
In urgent scenarios you still have to ensure responsiveness. Or better yet - work together at the same time with everyone who's needed to resolve the problem. Cord lets you have real-time collaboration and communication (video coming soon!) inside your tools. But for the vast majority of projects, you want to reduce the number of interruptions, increase the number of people available to help, require less effort to communicate and an easier way to get back into context.
The result of these four tweaks will be many more long blocks of uninterrupted work to reach that 'in-flow' state we're all after. The productivity you and others in your org will unlock cannot be exaggerated: Researchers like “Indistrictable”’s Eyal call this the one untapped productivity multiplier in the world today. This is how you can build a company like WhatsApp, acquired when they were serving 250M users with just 28 employees, or like Basecamp, where focused work lets them accomplish their projects productively and work less than most other startups. These would sound like myths, until you take Cal Newport's advice, and put the effort to rethink your workflow and put good tools to use in unlocking the value of focus.