Context Switching and the Benefits of Deep Focus

7 min read

The average office worker spends about 70 days per year completing repetitive tasks, such as looking up information and replying to emails. That’s approximately one-third of the working year, costing nearly $5 trillion in lost productivity. Most employees also have to attend regular meetings, wait for approvals, and deal with distractions, which can ultimately hinder their performance. 

In these circumstances, you may think multitasking is desirable, but that’s not the case. As it turns out, multitasking decreases work productivity by up to 40% while increasing stress and burnout. Over time, it can affect cognitive performance and employee morale. 

Similarly, jumping from one unrelated task to another can hurt productivity and mental focus. This phenomenon, known as context switching, takes a toll on our working memory, increasing the risk of errors. 

Given these aspects, focusing on one thing at a time makes sense, but that’s only sometimes possible in today’s fast-paced environment. However, there are steps you can take to check everything off your to-do list without sacrificing quality. 

Note: This article is a guest post by a contributing author.

What is context switching?

The term “context switching” describes storing the state of a task so you can resume it later. Computers normally complete this process, allowing the central processing unit to switch between tasks. 

From a human perspective, context switching involves pausing a task or project and resuming it after completing other tasks. For example, you may be writing a report but stop halfway through to make a phone call, send an email, or work on a different project. 

This approach is about getting more done—and that’s a good thing, right? Not really. 

The human brain can switch between tasks and perform under pressure, but it’s not a machine. At some point, it becomes less efficient because of stress, burnout, aging, sleep deprivation, and other factors. Multitasking and context-switching can take a toll on mental health, leading to cognitive overload. 

Why multitasking doesn’t work

According to Inc., it takes more than 20 minutes to recover from work distractions. Now imagine how long it takes to regain focus when shifting from one task or project to another! 

The American Psychology Association says context switching is a productivity killer. This habit requires adjusting your “mental control settings,” increasing the cognitive load. As a result, it can diminish productivity and lead to costly mistakes. 

Moreover, our attention span and mental focus are limited and tend to decrease throughout the day. The higher the cognitive load, the less time it takes to lose focus. Not surprisingly, shifting from one task to another affects cognitive function to the same extent as one night of sleep deprivation. 

Multitasking and context switching can also affect work quality. When you juggle tasks, you’re creating distractions that confuse the brain and affect working memory. This aspect increases the risk of errors and causes mental fatigue. 

In a recent survey, 45% of employees said context switching hurts their productivity, whereas 43% reported feeling tired when jumping from task to task. Respondents also agreed they spend too much time switching between apps and other online tools to do their work. 

Also, note that some brain areas can only accept one input at a time and process stimuli in a particular order. So when switching tasks or projects, you’re cramming information into your brain—and a large part of it will get lost before you can use it to get things done.

Find your focus through “deep work”

Cal Newport, a computer science professor, coined the term “deep work,” which describes a state of deep mental focus. This concept is the opposite of multitasking and context switching, as it allows you to truly immerse yourself in what you’re working. 

Deep focus, or deep work, requires blocking out time for the task at hand. If done right, it can boost your creativity and performance, minimize errors, and instill a sense of fulfillment. 

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates used this approach back in the ’80s. The American entrepreneur went to a secret cabin for weeks at a time to read papers submitted by employees pitching new ideas. These so-called “think weeks” maximized his creative potential, allowing him to stay at the forefront of innovation management

As an entrepreneur, you can leverage this concept to enhance your team’s work performance. Sure, this doesn’t mean you should go with your team into the woods, but rather create a distraction-free environment where they can achieve deep focus. 

According to Newport, deep work enables people to get more done quickly without sacrificing quality. 

In his book, he talks about Adam Grant, a management professor who published seven articles in peer-reviewed journals in 2012, plus a bestselling book and five articles the next year. By 2014, he had published over 60 scientific papers. 

Grant took time off every spring and summer to do his work without distractions. During the school year, he uses the same approach but on a smaller scale by setting aside regular periods in his routine. 

How to achieve deep focus and produce higher-quality work

Employees can use business organizer apps and other online tools in this digital era to work more efficiently. However, these tools alone won’t necessarily help you achieve deep focus. You also need to plan and make a conscious effort to incorporate deep work into your schedule. 

Try these strategies to block distractions and train your brain to focus.

Schedule your workflows 

Newport’s philosophy is based on four rules, according to the New York Times. First, you must actively incorporate deep work into your schedule instead of waiting to have some free time for whatever you’re doing. 

Based on this rule, there are four ways to schedule your workflows, including: 

  • Rhythmic philosophy: Block out one- to four-hour chunks at the same time every day to complete your work;
  • Bimodal philosophy: Each week, set aside at least one day for deep work (think about what Bill Gates did); 
  • Monastic philosophy: Try to eliminate or reduce “shallow” work and distractions when working on cognitively demanding tasks. For example, some writers prefer to spend time alone and disconnect from technology when working on a new novel. 

The monastic approach can be tricky for those relying on technology in their professional lives. Generally, it works best for creative professionals, scientists, and academics. 

  • Journalistic philosophy: Make time for deep work whenever your schedule allows, such as early in the morning or late in the evening. This approach requires a lot of discipline, so there are better choices for novices. 

These rules are not set in stone, though. What matters most is to schedule time for deep work and commit to a routine.  

Train your focus and minimize distractions 

Newport also recommends quitting social media. Of course, that’s not an option for most professionals, but you can try to block distractions. 

Let’s see a few examples:

  • Turn off all notifications from your smartphone, tablet, computer, and other devices;
  • Use an app blocker;
  • Declutter your workspace;
  • Wear noise-canceling headphones during deep work;
  • Carve out a block of time to check your email (e.g., between 9 and 9:30 AM) 
  • Use the Pomodoro technique to schedule your workflows;
  • Break large projects into small tasks and block all distractions while working; take a short break when you finish. 

Also, note you can’t force yourself to stay focused. Mental focus is like a muscle; the more you train it, the stronger it becomes. 

Based on this premise, Newport says it’s essential to “embrace boredom.” Doing so will train your brain to function optimally without external stimuli. 

For example, resist the urge to check your phone the next time you’re waiting in line at a grocery store. Instead, repeat this exercise in different situations to become comfortable with silence. 

Meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, and other mindfulness exercises can be helpful, too. According to Columbia University, meditation can cause structural and functional changes to the brain, improving mental focus, memory, and attention span while reducing stress.

Minimize shallow work

One of Newport’s rules is to “drain the shallows.” He means you should avoid or minimize the tasks that take time and don’t require deep focus. 

Consider redundant activities, such as accounts payable (AP), invoicing, data entry, manual reconciliation, etc. These tasks take hours to complete, keeping you from doing high-value work. 

Business professionals can (and should) use online tools to automate billing, meeting scheduling, lead nurturing, and other business activities. For example, you can streamline AP with an invoice processing platform

Another option is to hire a virtual assistant or delegate tedious tasks. Alternatively, you can outsource social media management, content writing, cold outreach, and other time-consuming activities. This approach will give you more time for deep work and reduce mental fatigue. 

Focus on what matters most 

Not all work is created equal. Some tasks and projects carry a higher value than others but require your full attention. 

No matter how hard you try, you can’t be omnipresent and do everything at once. Multitasking and context switching may work for smaller tasks, but larger projects require a different approach.  

Deep work is about achieving a state of mind that enables your brain to reach peak performance. To get into this state, you must plan things, minimize distractions, and set clear goals. 

Also, remember to take “deep” breaks between work sessions. The more you focus on a given task, the more time your brain needs to recharge. 

Lastly, start small and train your focus muscle one step at a time. Make a conscious effort to block external stimuli and give your full attention to your work. Begin with 15- to 20-minute deep work sessions and scale them up over the next few weeks.

While the strategies mentioned above are crucial for achieving deep focus, integrating the right productivity tools into your workflow can magnify these benefits. This is where tools like PPM Express come into play. By providing a comprehensive view of your projects and tasks, these tools significantly reduce the need for context switching.

How PPM Express Facilitates Deep Focus

PPM Express stands out as a prime example of a tool that can help mitigate the effects of context switching. Centralizing project information, timelines, and resources, it allows professionals to see the “big picture” of their projects without constantly shifting between tasks. This centralized approach means you spend less time searching for information and more time engaging in deep, focused work.

Key Features of PPM Express That Support Deep Work

  • Centralized Dashboard: PPM Express offers a unified dashboard that provides a quick overview of all your projects and portfolios. This feature eliminates the need to toggle between various apps or documents, allowing for uninterrupted deep focus sessions.
  • Task and Project Prioritization: The tool enables you to prioritize projects and tasks based on importance and deadlines. This clarity helps in scheduling deep work sessions more effectively, as you can easily identify which tasks require your undivided attention.
  • Project Tracking: Real-time tracking of project progress helps in minimizing the need for frequent status meetings, which are often a source of context switching. With PPM Express, you can have a clear view of where things stand, thereby reducing interruptions.

Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice

Incorporating a tool like PPM Express into your daily routine bridges the gap between the theory of deep work and its practical application. It offers a structured way to organize tasks and projects, reducing the cognitive load associated with juggling multiple responsibilities. By minimizing distractions and the need for context switching, such tools empower you to engage in more meaningful, focused work sessions.


The pursuit of deep focus in a world rife with distractions and multitasking demands not only individual discipline but also the right set of tools. By leveraging work management platforms like PPM Express, professionals can create an environment that nurtures deep focus, leading to enhanced productivity, creativity, and overall work satisfaction.

Context Switching and the Benefits of Deep Focus
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