The silent villain of productivity? Context switching

If Slack notifications, emails, and meeting reminders pulled you into different tasks more than once while reading this article, you’re a strong candidate for a reduction in context switching. This improvement has long-lasting benefits. At the end of the day, every step we take to reduce context switching helps prevent dreaded burnout.
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There’s a unique relief to looking at the day’s calendar and seeing big stretches of blank space. Finally, you have time to focus.

Right as the code starts flowing, you receive an urgent Slack message. “Sorry to bother you, but…” You read the message, complete the requested task, and return to your original program. Now, you’ve forgotten where you left off, and it takes you a few minutes to get back in the groove. What seemed like a minor interruption is now responsible for stealing twenty minutes of your Deep Work time.

What is context switching?

This is called “context switching.” The concept describes the energy draw of changing your focus from one thing to another. (If this article is one of ten tabs currently open, you might understand the feeling.)

Looking at the Uplevel data—and knowing from personal experience—we know that engineers are plagued with a multitude of tasks every day. One user might balance a plethora of PR requests, Jira tickets, meetings, and Slack conversations. While that sounds like a productive day, in reality, it often feels frantic and scattered. After eight hours of context switching, their depleted energy stores reduce productivity altogether.

It’s worth noting that, for some engineers, variety powers productivity. We don’t hold judgment for different working styles, but there is a limit. Every time you switch tasks, you lose focus—and you then require more energy to adjust to the next issue.

How can I reduce context switching?

Engineering data holds many proxies for context switching. When we look to these areas, we can identify numerous ways to finally stop multitasking and embrace deeply focused work.

Declutter your calendar: Meetings can be helpful, but they promote context switching in a big way. Just one 30-minute meeting can take away an hour of Deep Work, with the adjustments on either end. In your next 1:1, sit down with your manager and review your calendar to determine which meetings are truly valuable—and which meetings can be skipped when you’re juggling other high-priority projects.

Get ahead of Slack interruptions: If you feel compelled to review each Slack message as it comes in, your day is littered with minor context switching. Consider blocking times throughout the day where you set Slack to “Do Not Disturb” and then check any new messages during designated times. To keep your coworkers in the loop, we suggest updating your Slack status to indicate that you’re in Deep Work and include when you’ll be back online. If larger change is needed, open the conversation with your team about Slack habits that promote focus.

Reprioritize Jira bugs: If your days too often get thrown by last-minute, high-priority bugs, this could be a good talking point at your next 1:1 to make sure that bugs are distributed evenly across your team. You might set aside certain days of the week to be “on call” so that you can hold other days of the week for continuous Deep Work on bigger projects.

Reduce your number of Jira epics: Uplevel dashboards display the number of Jira epics assigned to each engineer. If you find yourself juggling too many at one time, work with your manager to understand work distribution. It’s possible that any pile-up is purposeful: Will one epic be complete soon, while others are just beginning? Are the epics related in a way that actually maximizes your expertise and reduces context switching? If the number is still too high, ask to understand how work is distributed across the team.

Analyze PR repos: Look at the big-picture pattern of repos. Is the trend rising with no end in sight? Unless they’re related, you’re inviting rampant context switching throughout the days and weeks. Work with your manager to reduce the number assigned to you, freeing you to focus on fewer, yet deeper tasks.

Time for a quick test: How many interruptions did you have to answer while reading this article? If Slack notifications, emails, and meeting reminders pulled you into different tasks more than once, you’re a strong candidate for a reduction in context switching. This improvement has long-lasting benefits. At the end of the day, every step we take to reduce context switching helps prevent dreaded burnout.