Welcome to Part 3 of this blog series where I’m shedding some light on the state of our collective digital health and exploring findings from our recent Digital Etiquette report. Here, I’ll be concentrating on context switching, explaining why it’s bad for productivity, and focusing on a few quick fixes to help keep your head in the game.
Part 3: switch less, do more
Time for a quick challenge. See if you can make it to the end of this article without getting distracted and switching to something else. That means ignoring notifications, not switching to another app or tab, and reading every word. Do you think you can handle it?
If you’re already itching to look away, you’re not alone. A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada found that people generally lose concentration after eight seconds (dropping from 12 seconds in 2000). When we’re at work, this is exacerbated by the many interruptions we experience—at least one every eight minutes.
Setting aside the time it takes to deal with all these interruptions, productivity is lost by the fact it can take over 20 minutes to return to the original task. And while it’s been shown we work faster after an interruption, it comes at a cost: we feel more stressed, frustrated, and pressured. Not the positive mental attitude that helps teams thrive.
‘Context switching’ refers to the terrible type of multi-tasking many of us are faced with on a daily basis: having to move rapidly between tasks before they’re completed, often to respond to messages. And it’s compounded by remote working, where we’re not just juggling our workload, but all the virtual communication that goes along with it as well as domestic distractions.
Our survey into digital etiquette showed that one of the biggest changes people have experienced since lockdown is how they communicate, with 54 percent of respondents saying they have more virtual communication. And 38 percent of respondents said they worried at least once a day about communicating on digital platforms for work. All those emails, video calls, and messages have a huge impact on our reasoning and problem-solving ability too. A 2005 study found that people who were distracted by emails and phone calls saw a 10-point drop in their IQ. Suffice as to say, with the explosion of people using more digital channels every day in 2020, that figure would in all likelihood be quite alarming right now.
Here are some strategies to context switch with confidence, embrace the power of boredom, and increase your concentration.
1. Mindful switching
It would be nice if we could all stay focused on completing a task before moving on to the next. In reality, however, we need to be able to context switch to respond to colleagues and clients—often so they can make progress. That’s why being mindful of how and when you switch is vital. Ness Labs suggests taking the following steps:
- Define: figure out how responsive you need to be. How time-sensitive is your business? Could you check your emails twice a day instead of every half hour?
- Design: break your tasks down into manageable chunks that you can fit in between response times.
- Schedule: make sure you put those tasks in your calendar so you’ve got a clear plan for each day.
- Communicate: keep others in the loop that you won’t respond during these chunks of time—share your calendar or let people know your response timeframe in your email footer.
- Revisit: keep assessing what works and what doesn’t. You might find out you need to be more responsive or that certain tasks take longer than you anticipated.
Good to know is that you can keep context switching to a minimum with Everyday Toolkit from Adaptavist. This collection of micro-apps saves you time by letting you complete everyday tasks, like finding images or word definitions, calculating currency conversions, or generating passwords without ever leaving Slack.
2. Be more bored
People check their phones on average every 12 minutes. Whether it’s messaging, scrolling through social media, or listening to music, with our phones by our side, we’re never alone; we’re never bored. But it turns out being bored is really important. Letting your mind wander without any distractions encourages creativity and problem-solving. It’s the breathing space your brain needs to arrive at its next lightbulb moment.
Being bored isn’t the same as being relaxed. When you’re meditating, doing yoga, or sud-soaking in the bath, you’re not bored. Bring boredom into your life on a regular basis by picking an activity that requires minimal concentration and then letting your mind wander. It might be strolling around your neighbourhood or sitting in the park. No phone, no music—just let the magic happen.
3. Find your focus
If your concentration levels are lacking, it’s time to retrain your brain. Try out any or all of the below to find out what works best for you:
- Get puzzling – spending just 15 minutes a day playing sudoku, chess, or completing a crossword has been shown to significantly improve concentration.
- Just five more – when you feel like quitting, just do five more. That could be five more minutes, five more email responses, or reading five more pages. This helps to build up concentration over time.
- Pomodoro per favore – try the Pomodoro Technique for time management: choose a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and get to work. When the timer rings, make a checkmark on a piece of paper and take a 3–5-minute break. When you have four checkmarks, take a 15–30-minute break. Then reset your checkmark count to zero and start again.
- Read for pleasure – put your phone in a different room, get comfy, and read an actual book. If you don’t do this often, you might find it hard to engage, but stick with it. Try and read for at least 30 minutes before stopping.
And if you’ve read this far without switching someplace else, you’re already well on your way to becoming a concentration connoisseur.
I hope this has made you more aware of your digital health. Join me for the final instalment of this blog series where I discuss the problems with always being on and how to handle notification overload.
Are you struggling to know what’s right and wrong when it comes to digital etiquette? Read the Digital Etiquette report for lots more useful advice. And we’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic, so feel free to to get in touch.