May 29, 2024

How Does Context Switching Impact Team Productivity?

Cara Marin

Cara Marin

My learnings from the context-switching panel in partnership with Leaddev and

How Does Context Switching Impact Team Productivity?

Too much context-switching doesn't just make you less productive, it also makes work a lot less fun. That's why last week I was really excited to join Chris Class, Ryn Daniels, Amador Fernandez, and Najla Elmachtoub, for the How Does Context Switching Impact Team Productivity panel to talk about how we can mitigate context-switching.

I love participating in panels because I always learn something new from the other panelists. I wanted to share my key takeaways in case you didn't get to tune in.

If you're interested, you can also see the full recording.

What is context switching?

Most of us have a basic understanding of context switching. It's when you switch your focus between tasks. But, there are actually two steps when you context switch:

  1. Goal shifting: when you make the decision to switch from one task to another. For example, from coding to a meeting.
  2. Rule activation: when you adopt the ‘rules’ for your new task. For example, closing your code editor, opening up a video app, getting your notes ready, and fixing your hair.

Both add to the mental load of context switching. We’ll explore a strategy for mitigating one of these steps later.

Signals your team might have a context switching problem

All teams have some amount of context switching. These are a few of the signals we discussed that could indicate context switching is a real problem on your team.

Story points aren’t getting done

Your team is working on a lot of unscheduled, out-of-scope work. Your velocity is decreasing and the team is struggling to make it through committed work.

Your team does their "real work" after work hours

The phrases, “I haven’t gotten any work done yet today” or "I'll do my real work later this evening" is an indicator that your team is busy, but with the wrong things. They may be losing momentum managing distractions and impromptu interruptions. Their priorities may be unclear.
You may notice they are only able to make headway on code changes late at night after working hours.

Low morale

People like to feel accomplished and have an impact. Context switching can steal the joy and satisfaction of completing a task.

People tell you

Listen to your team! Some folks may come right out and say “I’m switching between tasks too much and it’s making it hard to have deep focus time”. But others may not be as obvious. Watch out for statements like:

“I have too many different things on my plate right now” or,
“I can’t find time to get to xyz”

Reduce context-switching at the team level

There are two levels you can target context switching at: the team/cultural level or the individual level. In this section, I’ll talk about the most interesting insights for team-level improvements.

Lead by example

One thing Ryn pointed out is that senior ICs and managers need to lead by example and set the norms for context switching. More junior team members might not feel comfortable speaking up. If they see senior-level team members working a certain way, they may feel pressured to emulate it. Creating boundaries at work with things like your response time, when you take meetings, etc. and communicating those to your team will help empower them to set similar structures and stick to them.

On a related note, Chris mentioned that it's important to be vulnerable as a manager and give your team insight into how you’re spending your time. Some ideas on what to share could include:

  • What your current workload is and what you’re balancing
  • How you’re prioritizing what you’re working on
  • How you manage context switching

This transparency creates a safe environment for the team to question if they’re spending time on the right things. It’s better to do a few things really well than have a ton of things on your plate and not feel good about any of them. Chris also underlined the importance of building rapport with your direct reports so they feel comfortable having open and honest conversations about why they didn’t complete a task on time and what got in the way of it.

Prioritize knowledge sharing

On the panel I shared that knowledge silos can be a major driver of context switching. Why? If you’re the only one who knows how to do something, it’s likely you’ll be pulled in to help fix it when something goes wrong. This means that the most senior person on the team is essentially always on-call, and never able to truly focus on other work.

Here are some ideas for how to encourage better knowledge sharing:

  • After each incident, have the person who fixed it explain what happened.
  • Have the senior team member run a ‘chaos’ day where they simulate different things being broken and present past scenarios and other team members try to debug.
  • When code changes are needed in sensitive codebase areas, have someone else write the code change. It'll take them longer than the person who already has the expertise, but they'll understand the code better than from just doing a review.

Ryn pointed out that it’s important to reflect on what you reward culturally and try to skew it towards favoring knowledge sharing. Look at what it takes to get promoted within your organization. If that doesn’t include knowledge sharing, a shift is needed. One example that several of us have seen is that getting promoted requires completing a large project on your own. There's no knoweldge sharing in that - just deep focus time without interruptions. So you may actually be incentivized to avoid people asking you questions.

Expect to context switch more when you’re on-call

I love how Chris put this. You’ll context switch more when you’re on-call, so lower the expectations for what you'll accomplish that day. If on-call is your top priority, anything else you do is a bonus. This lets the rest of your team focus on what they're doing. Also recognize that b It enables the rest of your team to focus and shields them from the burden of context switching.

It also means you can respond to customer needs and outages faster. You’ll feel less scattered and frustrated if you set the expectations that on-call is your #1 thing for the day.

Reduce context-switching at the individual level

Group similar tasks for less jarring context switches

As we discussed in the beginning, ‘rule activation’ is the second step in context switching. This is when you adopt the ‘rules’ of the new task.

If you have no choice but to switch between tasks, try to group tasks with the most similar rules. For example, Amador suggested scheduling all your meetings together within a certain time frame can make it easier to go from one to the next since the rules are essentially the same.

Control your environment, especially at home

Distractions get the best of all of us, especially when working from home. Amador pointed out you may have a load of laundry going or your cat walking over your keyboard and demanding attention, whatever it may be. At home, there’s more responsibility to keep focus because there’s so many things to steal your focus.

Accept that you cannot completely eliminate context switching

Despite your best efforts at the team and individual level, we all have to accept that there is some amount of context switching that we’ll need to tackle. But there are strategies to reduce the impact of context switching.
Writing notes before switching tasks helps you have better closure on that task so that you can be more present for the next task. There's a concept called "Attention Residue" where your thoughts from your previous task pollute your focus on the current task. This is when you start to feel scattered and overwhelmed from context-switching.

To mitigate this, you can jot down a quick Status Dump before switching tasks. Write down what you did and what's next. This closes the loop on that task for now so you can focus on the next one.

None of us are perfect, but identifying ways you can set a better example and limit distractions can help you and your whole team become more productive and focused.

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