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Ep. 111: The Impact of Context Switching on Work Productivity


Addressing the substantial impact of context switching on productivity, the hosts delve into the complexities of human thinking and the disruptions caused by device notifications, while offering practical strategies such as time blocking, visible task management, and mindful meeting participation to enhance focus and minimize interruptions.

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Struggling to juggle multiple tasks and maintain focus? Join Peter Madison and David Sharrock as they shed light on the significant consequences of context switching on work productivity. From exploring the complexities of our thinking processes to the negative effects of constant notifications on our devices, we uncover the toll that switching between initiatives can have on our productivity.

But we don't stop at uncovering the problem; we provide practical strategies for managing cognitive load and reducing context switching. Learn about time blocking, a method that allows you to allocate dedicated time for deep, meaningful work. Discover the power of making work visible and contributing purposefully in meetings. We also emphasize the importance of clear meeting agendas and being mindful of the tasks we take on. By implementing these strategies, team members can work more effectively, minimizing unnecessary interruptions.

This week's takeaways:

  • Context Switching is a Hidden Productivity Killer.
  • Make work visible and prioritize tasks.
  • Recognize that it takes time to transition between different tasks and thinking modes.

Join us in this episode as we navigate through the challenges of context-switching and explore ways to build a more productive work environment.  Don't forget to subscribe and share your feedback! For additional resources and to join the conversation, contact us at with your thoughts, questions, or suggestions for future episodes. Stay tuned for more exciting content!


Peter: 0:05

Welcome to Definitely, Maybe Agile, the podcast where Peter Maddison and David Sharrock discuss the complexities of adopting new ways of working at scale. Hello Dave, how are you today?

Dave: 0:15

Peter, I'm doing very well. Our topic today is context switching, and you beautifully threw me for a loop by starting the recording while I was still context switching from where I was before. Thank you very much for that. There you go An example of how well it works. So kick us off. What can?

Peter: 0:32

we talk about here. Okay so, context switching Context switching, as we, well as anybody out of our space would be familiar that it's a really, really bad thing, and it's actually probably one of the biggest problems that we often run into in organizations is this the lack of understanding of just how detrimental it is to teams getting work done and how much longer it takes to get things done. When you're switching from one context to another because it is disruptive, and when you're switching from one context to another, you very often or as you're saying, like not paying attention to exactly what's happening next. You're still lost on the last. I'm still thinking about that last thing. Oh, what was it you said?

Dave: 1:18

It's like well, I want to sort of. I'm not sure if this isn't probably one of the biggest headaches in the workplace today. It's not just context switching is bad for you, but the whole shift that we've seen in the last 10 or 20 years towards handheld devices, with notifications proliferating everywhere, has created an environment that almost feels like you know the restaurants that you go in. You try and have a nice quiet meal and all you can hear is the loud chatter everywhere. It's just noise, noise, noise coming at you. We don't work well in that context, right? And this really brings us, maybe, to that first thing about context switching, which is how our brains operate. System one, system two thinking in terms of how our brains operate in an environment where we're continuously interrupted, we're not getting to that. System one slower, more deliberate thinking, where we're stuck in system, sorry. System two deliberate thinking we're stuck in system one heuristics, cognitive biases, rapid tool based decision making, which all of the studies are beginning to show it's useful in a certain context, but really doesn't allow us to be to make those sort of decisions we may want to be making.

Peter: 2:29

Yeah, because we're effectively in this and just responding. It's like you don't have time to step back and think and takes time to get up to speed with what the new topic is and and also to like close off your thoughts on the old topic. So you end up just responding and when you have 13 or 14 meetings a day and you're like back to back in half hour slots and you're and they're all on different topics and there's no relationship between any of them, it becomes very, very easy to get lost. Basically, in just end up just responding that very road. It's like what's this meaning about? Again?

Dave: 3:09

Well, and I feel it's useful for us just to touch on a little bit of this. So Daniel Kahneman, with Thinking Fast and Slow, introduced or referenced this idea of system one and system two system one being fast, subconscious, no, automatic, great for everyday decisions, ish, but error prone. And so this is the one that Steve Jobs wore the same thing over and over again, so that he didn't have to use the energy involved in making decisions to get dressed in the morning. But there's also the context switching we're talking about. Isn't context switching between that system one thinking into system two thinking, which is where we do the work. Let's be frank. That's the slow conscious. We focus on it. Complex decisions get made. We can be confident that we're doing the right things if we can get into system two thinking. But the context switching we're talking about isn't even between system one and system two. It's notification one answer it with system one. Notification two answer it with system one. Notification three answer it with system one. We never get out of system one thinking. But context switching still becomes a problem in that space.

Peter: 4:12

Yes, and it's interesting because when I brought up, I was thinking of context switching two in the sense of trying to do too many initiatives all at once, like an organization trying to do far too many different things at once, which is the larger scale of this, but that micro scale of it is an example of it. But when you've got, when you try to run five projects simultaneously involving the same people in different parts of it, that person is in that, hey, I got a notification for this project, notification for this project, notification for that other project, and I've got to switch between those. But even at a slower scale, even if you've got sufficient focus that that person can focus on one of these projects and then switch over to the next one, you're still going to have that context switching problem because you're going to have the time that it takes to say, okay, what was I doing last time I was working on this? So they've got to. You've got to go back and like, get up to speed and find out if other people were working on a project, what did they do in the meantime and what else has changed and what are the other things. So you've got all of the reading and catch up and all of that to do before you can even get started, and the longer that gap has been, the more of that you'll have to do, because there's more things will happen.

Dave: 5:24

And I think of this as cognitive load. Yes, so, and the cognitive load is, and I think the rule of thumb is it takes you 25 minutes to get back up to speed mentally, cognitively, not necessarily information wise, but just. My brain is now focused on the new problem. That's the first thing. And then, as you said, then there's all the catch up. You know, if it really was a week since you last looked at this, what's changed in the past? Right, but then the other side of it is now, if I start doing this context, switching regularly, you quickly lose any sort of a beneficial effect when you move from, say, one or two pieces of work that you're switching between and you hit the three or four or five. And this is our project plan. 25 percent of Peter's time is on this program and 25 percent is over here. Because if I have 25 percent but then I lose 25 minutes plus every single time, I don't even get the 25 percent. I get 15 percent of that time because the rest of it is lost to making the change and so on. So all of a sudden, you get no benefit from having people move backwards and forwards between work problems.

Peter: 6:29

And if it takes 25 minutes to get up to speed on the new problem, all those 30 minute back to back meetings doesn't leave you a lot of time to.

Dave: 6:37

Well, yeah. So how do we solve it? How, I mean being aware of it is one thing, and I think, certainly making it visible and tracking it, looking at your calendar and trying to figure out what's going on and why. We may never get out of system one thinking, but how do we solve it?

Peter: 6:51

So I mean, there's a great idea of like some great concepts in there, for how do you start to look at these different things that are stealing your time away, because context switching is stealing your time away. That's what we're looking at. How do we start to create focus in the work that we do?

Dave: 7:08

So number one fantastic. So the first one is that context switching in terms of making work visible, and I love what you just said about stealing time away, because that there's a tendency sometimes to think that's what my job is, and I certainly see this when we sit down with leaders for the first time and start looking at their calendars and helping them really carve out time. One of the things we have to overcome is that I need to be involved and that whole concept of stealing your time away, of recognizing that being at the meeting is not the same as contributing and being valuable at the meeting and therefore, how do I create the scenario where I'm contributing in a valuable way rather than being busy being busy?

Peter: 7:50

Yeah, so exactly, and looking at what are the things that my team needs, how can I create the answer that they feel empowered, that they've got what they need to be able to work on the work and they I don't need to be there, and having the confidence in that is that's a critical part of it, because any senior executive, if you look at that calendar, it's always back to back to back to back all the way through. It's like triple quadruple booked. It's like, well, okay, where, where are you actually needed to be like? Where do you, where can you add the most value? What does that look like? Starting to understand that is absolutely critical.

Dave: 8:30

So I and I think there's a natural, like you can almost take the next step and it's pretty obvious, which is carving time out in the calendar and, and, in particular, I feel like, if I really want to, it's not just about carving time out so I've got protected time that I can take care of a problem, but recognizing that, if I know it takes 25 minutes to get up to speed and I need a couple of hours to deep dive into something, or an afternoon or whatever it might be, actually creating enough contiguous space where you're allowed to shift from system one to system two thinking, and then spend enough time thinking about the problem and coming up to the next step, whatever that might be.

Peter: 9:15

Yeah, exactly so I mean and I do this I block chunks of my calendar off for particular topics, knowing that I'm going to need sufficient time to get into the right space, headspace to understand with this, and so we've got enough time to work through it. And it's critical to do this. Otherwise you, as we were saying, if it's, if your day is just a slice of like 30 minute slices all the way through, it becomes impossible to actually get to the point where you can really think through the problem. Do I be able to make a good judgment call, to understand where do we need to go next? Which is why, quite often, I think some of these meetings are really just a repeat of the last meeting, as you spend the whole time trying to remind yourself of what did we do last time, what decision did we make?

Dave: 9:59

It's actually one of the things I really appreciate about sort of some of the processes and frameworks which have really structured events, and I'm thinking Scrum is one of them, but there are many of these right, and I till we were talking a few weeks ago about it. I till where there's really clear agenda and purpose for a meeting, so that it doesn't become ambiguous and just broaden out into a catch up and chat and nothing really gets done. I think that's one of the really a great observation that you're making.

Peter: 10:30

Yeah, so, and it's important, when we start to look at this at scale, that we're not asking everybody in all of our teams to work this way, right, it's like, and so I think the not starting too many things is the critical part of this right.

Dave: 10:44

Well, I was working a couple of weeks ago with an organization and we were talking about this and one of the things that we discussed and I felt was kind of an aha moment that came out is if I know it takes 25 minutes to shift or if I know I need, I'm generally in system one, I hit my emails early in the day and I'm in system one thinking and so on and I'm only I need to move into system two. There's a conscious. You know what do you do, and this is like an open question what is it that you do to consciously get your brain to stop, let go of what's going on and move to to system two? Thinking, and this is you know everything from put your phone away to go for a walk or, you know, grab a cup of coffee or tea and read something for half, but all of these things allow it's almost like seeing it as a formal process to shift from system one to system two.

Peter: 11:40

Yeah, exactly, and by consciously thinking about doing it. If it's not overusing the term that I mean, think that's a critical part. It's yeah, we're and finding what are the things that you do for that. And it doesn't always have to be the same thing either, it can be like it's as long as you're hey, I'm gonna get up, clear my head, going to go for a walk, go sit. Another quite good one is like going and sitting somewhere else and different environment. Change in space, change in environment can help as well, and all of these are good ways to just basically reset yourself mentally as to okay, I'm doing something different now, and so I'm switching.

Dave: 12:22

Yeah, absolutely so. Let's. Let's maybe pull a few thoughts together here and pull the threads together so we both agree switching context, not that we ever do this, so we're recognizing it.

Peter: 12:33

Oh, no, never never.

Dave: 12:36

So I mean, context switching is, let's call it, the scourge of our work life. You know, work balance or work life balance piece that we have to deal with huge. So what are the key takeaways? Number one it is a lot worse than we think, both the impact of it, the number of kind of major problems we're trying to deal with, as we sort of discussed. I think there's a lot to be said to say. This is one of the primary things that organizations support or individuals will gain a lot from addressing that. Yeah, what would you add?

Peter: 13:07

Well, I think I agree and I think I think we were talking about this. This applies at both levels, right? It applies whether you're taking on too many large programs or if you're just taking on too many individual pieces of work, and having systems in place to help you support, to help support you in being able to switch is good and also just not taking too many things on. So another piece that because we didn't talk about just now that something I do is looking at well, what do I have coming up this week? Can I realistically look at all of these things, or should some of that just be pushed out further? Because that way it's not a distraction for me, because just having a backlog of tasks that you are on your mind is a distraction in itself that you have to deal with.

Dave: 13:56

I think I would add a couple of things to that. One is that whole system one, system two thinking there is it's sort of on the periphery of a lot of you know, if I think of the entrepreneurs you know there's some very vocal entrepreneurs about how they kind of very consciously manage system one, system two thinking type of context. I think there's there's enough evidence and invest, you know, experiments and sort of data out there that shows there's a very distinct difference and we probably have to try and bring that much more closely into our ways of working to recognize the distraction of system one and when to get into system two. And that brings me to that idea of what's your transition, what's your way of transitioning from I've got everything in front of me and I have to deal with it to okay, I now I have to give some thoughts to a problem how do I consciously migrate my mindset from where I am now to where I need to be in 25 minutes so that I can address the problem?

Peter: 14:54

Yeah, drop and give me 20.

Dave: 14:56

There we go. Yes, yeah, that might take more than 25 minutes. You never know.

Peter: 15:03

So, as always, if you'd like to send us any feedback, you can at feedback@ definitely maybe agile. com and don't forget to hit subscribe till next time. Until next time, Peter. Thanks again. You've Definitely, Maybe Agile listening to the podcast where your hosts, Peter Maddison and David Sharrock, focus on the art and science of digital agile and DevOps at scale.