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How to Stop Task Switching Without Actually Fighting It

Have you ever sat down for an 8-hour work day, only to find out that you’ve exhausted yourself over so little? You had this huge task assigned for that day, yet you spent most of that time switching browser tabs, checking email, making calls, doing errands, and other seemingly urgent to-dos.

At the end of the day, that huge task ends up being set aside, rescheduled. You lose the opportunity to work on the next big thing.

Task switching, otherwise known as context switching, is the act of switching from one task or action to another. It creates this impression that we are busy and deep in work, when the truth is that true progress is hampered due to so many things vying for our attention.

The consequences of task switching affect our capacity to get work done. Since our brains can’t handle multiple tasks simultaneously, we become more stressed, our reaction times are slower, we miss important information, and the quality of work lowers.

Task switching, therefore, costs us money, time, and effort that could’ve been spent moving projects forward.

But is it possible to get rid of task switching?

In an interview with Fast Company, Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California shares that half of the task switching we do are caused by “self-interruption.”

If one half of task switching is caused by self-interruptions, we’d have to assume that the other half are external interruptions caused by outside forces that can’t be controlled.

While it’s easy to suggest to stop task switching, many argue (check the comment section of this post) that most instances of task switching are external and that it’s important to address this.

In understanding my tendency to task switch, reading this was a breather for me. I want to create an environment that is ideal for combatting interruption (i.e. no noise, no notifications), but if my kids need my attention I can’t just shoo them away to work.

I may lose 40% of my productivity, but I will give that up if it means knowing my kids’ needs are met.

The classic solutions to prevent task switching (i.e. do one thing at a time) still hold water, but knowing and accepting task switching as a part of our lives may open us to more creative ways to manage and lessen it.

Planned vs unplanned task switching

Not all task switching is counter-productive.

Professor Mark points out that interruption is beneficial “if [it] matches the topic of the current task at hand.” If you’re working on a large project, for example, and your 15:00 meeting will provide the information you need to finish this project, then the switch is planned and beneficial.

Allowing your brain to relax and “be quiet” after hours of work is another example of how task switching can be beneficial to you. By leaving blank spaces, your brain may discover and/or spot solutions that you wouldn’t have noticed earlier while deep at work.

It is constant unplanned or unrelated task switching where you experience lost productivity, stress, and lack of direction.

By minimizing unplanned task switching, you will be able to get more work done.

Focus: the best way to tackle task switching

Since task switching is interruption, the best way to manage it is to improve the ability to focus.

We may live in a world where everything and anything can potentially steal our attention, but focus is a muscle we can stretch, build, and strengthen to combat these interruptions.

When you can focus and sustain that focus, you will be able to lessen the stress of trying to catch up after being interrupted.

Here are X effective tips and strategies to heighten and retain focus:

How to heighten focus:

  1. Get enough sleep. I found that getting enough sleep allows me to be alert, and therefore capable of focusing on my tasks for today. Naps are especially effective, considering that some of the world’s most creative people take naps to fuel their brains.
  2. Prepare everything before working on a task. Have all of your research, outlines, and materials within reach before sitting down to work on a task. If you need to switch, make sure it’s planned and related to the work at hand.
  3. Dedicate blocks of time for specific tasks. You can, for example, schedule your early mornings for your most important tasks, while late afternoons are for emails, reading, or catching up with people after work.
  4. Fill the room with enough light. During a brainstorming session with the marketing team, we discovered that working in a dark and sober leaves us feeling sleepy, lazy, and unproductive, When we transferred to a different, well-lit room, we became more engaged and focused on our discussions.
  5. Spend time on off-the-grid activities. Assuming that most interruptions are caused by online triggers, it helps to sign out once in a while. Instead, take walks, have meaningful conversations, note down random thoughts, or simply immerse yourself in the environment.
  6. Create an environment where there is minimal distraction. If you find that working inside your bedroom where the kids love to play keeps you from doing work, moving to a more quiet room can help you focus on what needs to be done.
  7. Track time spent. It was just to test the beta version of our time tracker, but our very own Time Macchi discovered that tracking his time, made him more driven to focus and get work done.
  8. Purge tasks and projects of less priority. Following Einstein’s principle of doing more by focusing on less, it helps to purge low-priority projects and tasks so you can focus on what’s most important. Take some time to go through your My Active Projects list and see which project you should conclude or delete from your list.

How to sustain focus:

  1. Brain dump. Dump thoughts, unrelated tasks, and other information on a concrete space that you can return to at a later time. A notepad or a notebook are good places to brain dump.
  2. Stretch. Stretching forces you to take deep breaths of oxygen as you extend your body. As more oxygen flows through your bloodstream, you are more awake, alert, and focused. Do this if you find yourself sitting in the same position for more than an hour.
  3. Take short and mindful breaks. The Pomodoro® Technique is a perfect example of this where you’d work and rest in short sprints. This relaxes your brain without losing hold of your focus and flow.
  4. Track your progress. I find that seeing and tracking actual progress on a task motivates me to continue until I reach completion. Gantt charts are a great tool for tracking progress, so you can use these to track progress for a lot of your daily tasks.

Break the bad habit of task switching.

Task switching may be disruptive and a huge dent to your productivity, but with a solid structure and enough discipline, you can improve your focus and get work done on time.

You can use the very technology that creates these interruptions to help you focus. Track your time and your progress on a daily basis, and be sure to sign out once in a while to free your mind of the stress of work.

Q: How do you manage task switching? Share your best tips in the comments.

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