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How To Stop Context Switching (and Find Your Flow State)

How To Stop Context Switching (and Find Your Flow State)

A Tango-branded illustration showing what context switching looks and feels like.
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💡 What is context switching?

Context switching refers to the process of bouncing between different tasks, projects, apps, tools, and modes during the workday.

The ability to change gears with ease is important for nearly every job. But what’s even better—and more elusive?

 A gift for minimizing the number of times you need to stop, start, pivot, and pick back up again. 

Most of us cycle between getting sh*t done, learning, communicating, collaborating, and connecting throughout any given week. All of that gets exponentially harder to do when we’re context switching—but especially the first two. 

In this post, we’ll run through: 

  • 10 underlying causes of context switching 
  • Stats we should be talking about more 🤯 
  • 12 strategies to stay in focus mode, longer
  • A better way to learn on the job (without breaking flow)

Why do we context switch?

We know context switching kills productivity and zaps mental energy. And yet—it’s a really hard habit to break. 

Check out 10 of the most popular causes of context switching below. 👇

A graphic with illustrative icons covering the 10 common causes of context switching at work.

1. Meetings 

Ever try making progress on a project in 30-minute increments between meetings? It’s…not great. It’s even less great if you need mental energy to solve a problem, be creative, or test complex code. 🎧

2. (Attempts at) multitasking 

We’ve all seen—and probably been—the person on Zoom who is clearly also responding to an email, reading a text message, or trying to finish up another task. 👀

"Multitasking is a myth. You cannot do two things at once—you can only switch back and forth."

Vint Cerf

Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google

3. Notifications in X, Y, Z app

The average smartphone user gets over 46 notifications a day. The average office worker receives about 121 emails per day. And that doesn’t even factor in the countless messages sent through Slack and Microsoft Teams. When we aren’t being pinged on one app, we’re being pinged on another. 1️⃣

"The hardest part of running a marketing org is the context switching."

Kipp Bodnar

Chief Marketing Officer at HubSpot

4. Interruptions from coworkers 

If you’re an in-office worker, chances are good you have another kind of interruption to contend with—and it’s a little harder to ignore. Coworkers with a habit of swinging by your desk unannounced may mean well, but too many impromptu visits can quickly derail your attempts at getting into flow mode. 😤

5. Ambient distractions

A lawn mower next door. A ringing doorbell. A noisy pet. A child who needs a snack, a drink, or both. A washer entering its final spin cycle. A jackhammer at a construction site around the corner. A phone conversation carrying across an open floor plan. An impeccably curated soundtrack from next door. There are literally dozens of things competing for our attention at any given moment. 😅

6. Poor time management 

If your calendar doesn’t have any time blocked off for deep work—and if people can grab time with you whenever—it’s tricky to avoid task switching. Dipping in and out not only reduces your ability to concentrate, but also makes it harder to give sustained attention to your most impactful projects. 🙁️

"I block out time for deep work on my calendar, and I try to guard that time as fiercely as I would guard any meeting."

Bill Gates

Co-founder of Microsoft

7. Inadequate process documentation

What do you need to minimize FAQs—and maximize focus time? Great documentation. But most documentation is time consuming to make and just as frustrating to follow. And when documentation is hard to find, outdated, or too wordy for words, people who have questions and people who have answers *both* get pulled away from their work. 👎🏿

8. Inefficient knowledge sharing  

Research shows people like screen sharing because it’s an effective way to get curated insights from an expert. But those same people admit it’s inefficient and takes them out of the flow of work. The more we share answers through methods that don’t scale, the more we perpetuate a vicious cycle of interruptions. And the less we get done, collectively. 📉

💡 Tango Tip

When you want to have a live conversation and feel the energy of your coworkers, tools like Zoom are great. But live screen sharing causes extra meetings and leaves participants with vague recollections and unwieldy recordings.

When you want to get stuff done, you need answers delivered fast and in the flow of work. That's where tools like Tango come in. And make it easy to for everyone to minimize context switching—without stopping the exchange of ideas.

9. Cobbled tech stacks 

Working between disconnected software systems and point solutions to complete a single task is another form of context switching. If you’re a content marketer and creating a piece of content involves a 309-step process across eight different tools, you’ve got trouble. Harvard Business Review did a study to figure out how much time and energy we waste toggling between applications, and found workers toggled roughly 1,200 times each day—or 9% of our time at work. 😳

10. Personal distractions 

We’re big fans of bringing our whole selves to work. Which means that sometimes, we get distracted by personal tasks or problems during the workday. A coworker might be working on a presentation and pausing at 9am to schedule a doctor’s appointment. You might be putting together a monthly report, while worrying about a trip to the dentist, a toddler’s first flight, or a fight with a friend. Life happens while we’re at work. 🧡

The cognitive cost of context switching 

Context switching takes a toll. 

Here are some stats to make your head spin:

➡️ The average employee is interrupted every three minutes, and it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus. Which means that we’re getting three minutes of work done for every 26 minutes we spend on the job. 

That’s alarming enough, on the surface. But there’s more.

When we get interrupted, we don’t always go straight back to what we’d been doing. Usually the interruption leads to one to two more tasks, which probably means one or two new open tabs, and a higher likelihood of remembering something else we need to do before getting back to our original task. 

When we do get back to it, it takes longer to pick up where we left off. Building context to solve a difficult problem can take hours, only to be lost by a poorly timed interruption. That’s the cognitive cost of disruption. 

➡️ After only 20 minutes of experiencing repeated interruptions, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure

Being bombarded with questions, requests, and notifications isn’t just annoying. 

It also compels us to compensate for lost time by working faster, leading to a higher risk of burnout. 

➡️ Every time we switch between tasks, the transition itself reduces our general productivity by 20–80%.

According to American psychologist Gerald Weinberg, the more task switching we do, the steeper the productivity tax becomes.

Scenario Cost
Single-tasking No costs; just benefits. We have 100% of our productive time at our disposal in this case.
Switching between two tasks at a time 40% of our productive time goes to each task. 20% gets lost to context switching.
Switching between three tasks at a time 20% of our productive time goes to the three tasks. 40% gets lost to context switching.

➡️ Most workers today are trying to juggle five tasks simultaneously.

You don’t need to be a math major to know that moving between that many tasks (regularly!) has staggering implications on efficiency. 

Context switching doesn’t only mean that it takes longer to get sh*t done. When we stop mid-task to take action on something else, we’re still partially focused on what we were just doing when we circle back to the original. Researchers call this attention residue.

What’s the price of attention residue? Impaired focus. So not only are we slower to execute, but we’re also more likely to make mistakes.

12 strategies to stay in flow

To make fewer mistakes, save mental energy, and increase productivity, we need to stop context switching and start staying in flow.

Before you file that away under “advice I’ve heard 10 times before” or “easier said than done,” here are some practical tips to help you and your team get stuff done with fewer stops and starts. 

Spoiler: A lot of it goes back to knowledge and process. How we create it, find it, share it, and use it to our advantage.

20% of our productive time goes to the three tasks. 40% gets lost to context switching.

1. Figure out why you’re context switching, first

We covered 10 common causes of context switching above. But it’s your typical workday that matters most. 

 Once you start spotting patterns, you can start coming up with solutions. 💭

Problem Solution
I’m spending too much time looking for the knowledge I need. Reimagine your approach to knowledge sharing so key insights don’t get buried in hard-to-use knowledge bases, learning management systems, chat systems, and people’s heads.
I’m answering questions from coworkers who are blocked (and want me to share my screen). Take a look at your documentation—and your tech stack. Tools like Tango deliver interactive walkthroughs with curated insights to help people get unstuck—without peppering the pros with questions.
I’m often being asked to join meetings at the last minute. Set a clear boundary—you need advanced notice before being asked to attend a meeting! If you get pushback, explain that you like a reasonable runway to prepare so you can participate fully, and last-minute requests make that difficult.
I’m constantly trying to keep up with emails, DMs, and phone calls. To avoid spending the bulk of your day in reactive mode—and reconcile how many always-on tools there are—try creating designated time slots to respond to incoming requests or office hours to field FAQs. Better yet, jot down common themes so you can create standard operating procedures to help people self-serve.

2. Start capturing processes *while* you work

If context switching is often driven by a need to connect people with information, you probably need better documentation. But you also need a way to take back time.

We don’t need to tell you that:

  • Hopping on a Zoom or Microsoft Teams call every time someone has a question isn’t scalable. (And it doesn’t provide reassurance that your tutorial was effective, or help people replicate the same process in the future.)
  • Recording long videos isn’t much better—because they require special skills to maintain and don’t help people skip straight to the information they need.
  • Typing up each step in a tutorial and manually creating screenshots to illustrate each one is just as slow as it sounds.

With Tango, you can automatically generate how-to guides while you work. Just click through any process, and Tango will turn each step into a beautiful, shareable how-to guide designed to empower your team asynchronously. 

See how it works. 👇

A GIF demoing Tango's Real-Time Capture feature (and how to make quick work of creating how-to guides).

3. Focus on providing the right knowledge, in the right place, at the right time

Documentation is a great first step to minimize disruptions and maximize time spent doing deep work. But to truly help people help themselves, you need a solution that proactively provides answers in the flow of work. 

That means:

✅ Interactive, on-screen walkthroughs to show people exactly where to take action

✅ Callouts to pair procedural knowledge with peer insights and pro tips at the moment of need

✅ More mental energy for more interesting work

And eliminates the need to: 

❌ Switch tabs while following instructions for any SaaS tool or website

❌ Search various databases looking for answers 

❌ Stop what you’re doing and share your screen

Learning on the job shouldn’t be the hardest part of the job. Your current tech stack may be great for connecting, communicating, and collaborating. But when people need to focus and stay in flow, they need answers in real-time. They need Guidance.

A GIF demonstrating how Guidance from Tango works (and makes it easy to help people get unstuck—without stopping, searching, or screen sharing).

4. Avoid sabotaging your own efforts to do deep work

Many interruptions at work are outside of our control. 

But studies show that people interrupt themselves almost as much as they’re interrupted by external sources (44% of the time). 🙄

As tempting as it is, try not to spend half of an open afternoon crossing off small tasks that have been building up and may provide more instant gratification. 

5. Watch how frequently you toggle between tasks and depth—especially across topics

You’re probably well aware that it’s smart to group similar topics and tasks together. 

But have you given any thought to what it does to your mental energy to:

  • Work at a tactical level on one topic for 15 minutes
  • Switch to working on a strategic level on a different topic for 40 minutes
  • Circle back to tactical work for 10 minutes
  • Jump on a call to brainstorm high-level ideas on a third topic for an hour
  • Resume your initial, tactical task for 20 minutes 

Forcing your brain to work at different depths on different topics is an especially exhausting kind of context switching. 😵‍💫

6. Minimize time spent communicating about work

Sometimes, we switch contexts to make sure that the work we’re doing is visible. ✔️

That’s not all bad—but according to a recent study from Loom

  • The average worker spends 3 hours and 43 minutes a day communicating.
  • 31% of workers struggle to find time to work because of constant interruptions.
  • 85% of employees are sending the same messages or information multiple times or in multiple places at least weekly. 69% do so every day. 

"Between emails, instant messages, video conferences, and phone calls, workers in America report they’re spending so much time communicating about work, they’re struggling to actually get work done."

Loom's 2023 research report

Titled "Mind the Communication Gap"

7. Decide if you’re a manager or a maker—and set your schedule accordingly

Why is it so hard for people who spend most of the day orchestrating and people who spend most of the day executing to work together? 

It’s simple. Their working styles are often directly at odds with each other. 

A graphic showing the difference between a maker's schedule (with big blocks for uninterrupted work) and a manager's schedule (with lots of meetings dedicated to specific purposes decided in advance).

"When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in.

That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. Not so for the maker trying to protect time for focused work."

Paul Graham

Startup investor and adviser

If you’re managing makers, what’s one of the best things you can do? Minimize the number of times you ask them to context switch through the day/week/month. As a close runner-up: understand and appreciate the value of deep work.

If you’re a maker managing up, what can you do to return the favor? Help your boss stack their meetings to minimize context switching between topics. 🫶🏾

8. Practice ruthless prioritization

Whether you’re a manager, maker, or both, there’s always going to be more work to get done than there are hours in the day.

To cut down on context switching, you may need to say “no” or “not yet” to some—or lots—of things. 🙅‍♀️

"The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say 'no' to almost everything."

Warren Buffet

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Berkshire Hathaway

9. Empower people to know what to handle asynchronously

Synchronous communication is important—especially if you’re in connect mode and would benefit from seeing someone face-to-face. 😁

But sharing information asynchronously can go a long way in helping everyone reserve time for getting sh*t done. To take a step in that direction, spend 10 minutes of your next meeting deciding what can and should be shared asynchronously moving forward. 

10. Institute a meeting-free day

What’s the next best thing to a four-day work week?

A (company or department-wide!) meeting-free day each week. 🎉

11. Normalize not responding to notifications immediately

According to Asana’s 2022 Anatomy of Work Index, over half of workers feel like they need to respond to notifications immediately. 

When what feels urgent starts detracting from what’s important, update your status to show you’re in focus mode. Set the expectation that you’ll respond to notifications when your energy dips and it makes more sense to do shallow work. 🙏🏽

12. Delegate tasks that would pull you out of get sh*t done mode 

This one’s pretty self-explanatory. If you have 60 seconds, set your savior up for success with a Tango. 💃🏻

The bottom line

Historically, the way information is shared and questions are answered at work lends itself to lots of context switching. Which makes it really hard for teams of all kinds to get into focus mode and get through their to-do lists. 

To exacerbate the issue, most knowledge sharing tools, solutions, and strategies take people away from the task at hand. But when you have work to get done and teammates to unblock, there’s a better way. 

With Tango, you can capture and share expertise, instantly. Without changing gears. ⚙️


What’s the difference between context switching and multitasking?

Context switching refers to the process of switching between different tasks or projects throughout the day. It’s often—if not always—disruptive to productivity, as it takes people time to switch gears and refocus on a new task.

Multitasking, on the other hand, refers to the ability to handle multiple tasks or projects simultaneously. This may involve working on different tasks in parallel, or switching between tasks rapidly to accomplish them more efficiently. Multitasking can be a useful skill in the workplace, but it can also lead to reduced focus and attention on each task, potentially leading to mistakes or errors.

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