The Real Cost Of Context Switching [And How To Solve It]
Context switching is the art of moving between different apps, modes of work, conversations, or topics.
It’s an art that so many of us have perfected. And, like all great art, it’s mighty expensive.
We can switch apps (and therefore context) at the drop of a hat. Or, more accurately, the alt+tab of a keyboard or the click of a mouse.
Thanks to the proliferation of messaging apps, design apps, project management tools, and everything in between, we have access to tons of information. And with that, tons of context.
But, at what cost?
Literally, what is the real cost of context switching?
In this article, learn about context switching, how it impacts your brain, and how it can burn a hole in your (or your company’s) pocket.
- What is context switching?
- Effects of context switching on the human brain
- Effects of context switching on the cost of business
- How much context switching is too much?
- How to combat context switching
What is context switching?
Context switching is the process of asking your brain to focus on two different things at the same time—but each has different meanings, settings, or circumstances.
When we switch context, we ask our brain to change focus while retaining focus.
For example, watching football while trying to bake a cake. How focused are you on making the cake if you’re tuned into your favorite sport? How many times have you missed a goal while doing something else at the same time?
In this example, the strain on the brain is less so than in a business scenario.
When we flick between Slack and Microsoft Teams, then to Trello and Notion, or Sage then Photoshop, then hop on a Zoom call while trying to find our Excel sheet, we are context switching.
And that’s bad for the brain.
Let’s uncover exactly what’s happening inside our minds when we flick between different apps during our workday.
Effects of context switching on the human brain
When we switch context, we’re activating what some scientists called our “working memory”.
This is when we recall or learn chunks of information and data. It might be a phone number from your childhood but it might also be the last sentence you read on a blog post.
Asking our brain to recall different pieces of information uses up some of the capacity of our working memory. And capacity is limited; especially in the moment.
So, what happens when we overload it—even in small doses?
We lose focus on the first task and our brain tries to catch up to what we’re trying to achieve in the second task.
As a result of constant context switching, our brains become fatigued. And when your brain becomes fatigued, your whole body becomes fatigued. Don’t forget, it’s your brain that tells the rest of your body what to do.
Think of losing focus every time you context switch like an injury.
Every time you bruise your leg or break your arm, there follows a period of recovery.
Obviously, reactivating focus and recalling previous information doesn’t take as long as recovering from an injury. But constant interactions and switches do have an adverse impact on your brain.
How long does it take a human to switch context?
It is estimated that the brain can process around 60 bits per second; which doesn’t mean much to you or I.
But applied to a workday with constant interruptions, activity switches, and context introductions, it is estimated that your brain takes an average of 9.5 minutes to fully adapt to new context when we switch between apps and tasks.
So every time you think you’re being productive writing an email, responding to a ticket, and updating your records at the same time, you’re most likely not.
All you’re doing is adding context that confuses the focus of your brain.
That doesn’t sound great, does it?
Is context switching bad for the brain?
Yes. Context switching is bad for the brain.
When you ask your brain to switch from one context to another, you trigger your mental control setting to continue working while it consumes new information to process at the same time.
Doing this on a constant basis means you lose focus and don’t give either task your full attention.
So multitasking, app switching, and lack of prioritization are all bad for the brain.
In fact, the term multitasking was invented by HP in 1965 as a computer term. Multitasking is not something humans are built to do well. Machines, on the other hand, have purpose-built processing capabilities.
Planned context switching is not so bad.
When you factor in tasks at allotted times or move on completely, you give your brain a breather.
Things like blocking out time in your calendar for deep work, hard cut-off times, and simply moving on to the next task are good practices to remain focused.
Instead of trying to multitask, coming back to that email later is a far better option. Resume the email when you can focus most of your attention on it; rather than 10%, 20%, or whatever number your brain allocates.
Speaking of numbers, it’s long been hard to quantify the impact of context switching. But, rather than write it off as intangible, we are closer than ever to putting a figure (and a price) on context switching
Effects of context switching on the cost of business
It’s no secret that the way some people work is costing their businesses money.
But how much money is a deep dark secret.
In his article, How Much Time and Energy Do We Waste Toggling Between Applications?, Rohan Murty answers the question most enterprise IT executives are scared to ask.
Comprehending the potential time, energy, and cost of switching between everyday apps is something we fear. If we find out the answers, it means change.
Rohan also points out it’s easy to see how we got into this situation:
“As business needs evolve, new applications are brought in to address them, and CIOs and managers struggle to retire old ones and keep numbers down.”
They struggle to retire old apps for many reasons:
- Personal preference
- Data retention
- Legacy contracts
- Priority planning
- Fear of the unknown
Persistent toggling between apps.
Take this example from a Fortune 500 company:
“To execute a single supply-chain transaction, each person involved switched about 350 times between 22 different applications and unique websites. Over the course of an average day, that meant a single employee would toggle between apps and windows more than 3,600 times.”
Imagine what you could achieve in that time.
So, the million-dollar question with the answer we all try to avoid is…
How much context switching is too much?
What we have accepted as normal work tasks and routines has a major impact on the “cost of business”.
But putting a figure on the cost of switching between apps has been near impossible for two reasons:
- There is no obvious software or metric readily available.
- Businesses fear the outcome.
This is where the “toggle tax” research comes in.
Using a work graph—a piece of software that reveals how teams interact with applications to get their work done—Rohan and his team found that 9% of the working year is spent switching between apps.
Let’s put that into perspective…
If Mary, a senior marketer, earns $100,000 per year, $9,000 of the cost of employing Mary is spent on switching between applications.
When Mohammed, a newly appointed CEO, starts his first week on a $1m per year salary, his first week sees $1,730 disappear due to app switching.
It’s no argument that these figures are alarming.
But, as Rohan posits, is this just the cost of doing business?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.
Instead, we can look for remedies in forming new habits, middleware, and behind-the-scenes apps that join up the app experience and reduce our reliance on so many apps.
For the sake of absolute clarity, that doesn’t mean adding replacement apps or more apps.
When we do that, the result is often a shiny new all-in-one app but our old habits insist we keep using existing apps because we’ve always known them.
Ta-da! Another app to switch to.
Combining our knowledge of middleware and habits, it is possible to combat context switching.
How to combat context switching
A new habit takes an average of 66 days to learn.
Unlearning old habits, however, can take up to 254 days!
This rules out simply asking people to stop switching between apps all the time.
Learning new habits
Using the information that we need 9.5 minutes to fully switch context, you could apply the logic of taking 10-minute breaks between new tasks.
For example, if you spend an hour writing 500 words for a blog post—but haven’t finished it—and need to start preparing your invoices, you’re better off stopping the first task altogether.
Trying to do both at the same time (multitasking) leads to what?
You got it…
Even in the Agile workflow model—famous for iterations and sprints—working on several things at once is frowned upon. Most practitioners argue the practice of context switching is not compatible with Agile.
Short tasks mean team members focus all their efforts on a particular deliverable in a timed burst. This removes both distraction and the introduction of new context.
And it’s this way of working that we must train our brain to habitualize.
That’s not to say you must only work in short bursts. Some people thrive dedicating hours to a single task.
But it’s that single task element that reduces context switching. Allowing your brain to focus on that and that alone drives productivity.
Outside, or even alongside, forming better habits, we can use technology designed for this exact reason.
How technology can help
There are many technologies designed to join up processes and integrate one app into another.
In the most basic form, you have technology we refer to as “If this then that” (IFTTT).
If something happens on one platform, something else gets triggered on another.
This is designed to move alerts and notifications to one central place. While it may not help with notification fatigue unless managed correctly, it does help reduce the number of apps you need to open and check each day.
For example, when you make a sale in your Shopify store, you can get a channel message in Slack. If you spend most of your work day in Slack, this reduces the number of times you check Shopify for online sales.
Minutes (and $$$) saved.
One common countermeasure people take to reduce app switching is to use the browser versions of each app.
While this technically does reduce app switching, you’re still toggling between tabs. So the context switching is still present.
All you’ve done is mask the problem you’re trying to remedy.
A much better solution is to focus on one task at a time and/or use a middleware option to bring tasks, messages, and notifications into one place.
For collaboration app switching, in particular, Mio enables cross-platform messaging between Microsoft Teams, Slack, Webex, and Zoom.
Mio exists because 91% of businesses use at least two messaging apps.
Like project management, accounts, or sales apps, juggling messages and people on these apps is not productive.
If your business uses both Slack and Teams, for example, how much time do you spend switching between platforms to respond to messages?
What could you do is choose your platform of choice and stay there; safe in the knowledge that Mio connects your Slack to your colleague’s Microsoft Teams messages.
Sounds better than the alternatives, right? (Forcing everyone to use a platform they hate or giving in to toggle tax.)
By using message interoperability, you can send cross-platform channel messages and direct messages.
Within each message, associated functionality gets translated cross-platform too.
Supported features include:
- Message edits
- Message deletions
- Message threads
- Emojis and GIFs
- Emoji reactions
- Group messages
- File uploads
- Message formatting like italics and bolds
So when you have 50% of your business using Microsoft Teams and 50% using Slack, it is possible for them to coexist without everyone constantly app (and context) switching.
Rather than burn a hole in their productivity pocket, brands use Mio to connect their platforms (and teams) to avoid succumbing to the dreaded toggle tax.
To find out how to reduce context switching in your business, visit the Mio website.